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Black & Blue

Ravens and Giants Expected to Produce a Bruising Defensive Affair

Game: Unlikely Super Bowl pairing matches teams that have risen from the depths.

January 28, 2001|From Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. — Three months ago, the Baltimore Ravens went five games without scoring a touchdown. Last season, two New York Giants ripped the coach and the offense.

These are chemistry-killing events that tend to shout "meltdown" more than "Super Bowl." But these are two teams that survived the storms--actually got stronger because of them--and now find themselves playing for a title.

"It never turned into us versus them, it never got cliquish," Raven receiver Qadry Ismail said.

A key theme to this Super Bowl week is how the Ravens survived their five weeks without getting into the end zone. That's an amazing stretch of ineptitude that failed to sink Baltimore's season only because the defense was good enough to win the first two games.

But three consecutive losses followed, and that's normally when locker rooms begin to divide and relationships strain.

Coach Brian Billick says the Ravens ignored the outside forces--media and fans--and the conventional wisdom that seemed to dictate that failure always brings about fissures.

"This team did not crack, as much as people were trying to get them to do it," Billick said. "They didn't turn on one another. And once they were able to step away from the abyss they said, 'You know what, we've stared at the worst of it, and we've gotten through it, so we're OK.' "

The Giants did divide last year, as the offense struggled and the defense scored the winning points in two games during the first half of the season.

After a loss to Washington with the division lead on the line, linebacker Jessie Armstead said the defense couldn't do it alone. Coach Jim Fassel called Armstead to his office and told him to quiet down. Armstead, the vocal leader of the team, suddenly seemed sullen and distant.

"I felt like I was a leader of all the team, not just the defense, and I had the right to speak up," he explained this week.

The whole scene freaked out defensive lineman Michael Strahan, who made an unsolicited trip into the media room to vent his frustrations.

In the middle of it all, Fassel's mother died, and he traveled briefly to California for the funeral.

New York lost its final three games and finished 7-9, and Fassel knew changes were needed. None of them, however, involved getting rid of Strahan or Armstead.

Instead, he revamped his lineup on offense, started promoting more of a group atmosphere--off-season boating trips, golf tournaments, bowling nights--and opened up more effective lines of communication with his stars.

"He explained what he was trying to do, the type of player he was going to bring in and the offense he wanted to run," Strahan said. "When that happened, I think we both said, 'Hey, let's get on the same wagon with him and try to ride it out and see what happens.' We gave it a shot and it worked out."

Strahan believes the players' stamp of approval means a lot in football, a game of teams within teams, where small groups of players spend portions of each week working separate from the others before everyone comes together on Sundays.

It's hard to tell whether harmony begat winning for these teams, or vice versa, but no longer do the Giants or Ravens worry about tension.

"A leader should be able to speak up, that's what you bring them in for," veteran Giants tackle Lomas Brown said. "You're in the locker room, you're telling people what you're hearing from the locker room. That's supposed to be a positive thing."

Even better is never hearing any complaints at all.

"I've heard about teams who had great defenses and their offenses aren't so great and it tears them apart," Ismail said. "Not one time has that been done on our team. The guys genuinely love going to war with each other."


BALTIMORE RAVENS vs. NEW YORK GIANTS; Tampa Raymond James Stadium, 3:15 p.m., Channel 2

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