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By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 11, 2001
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Turns out, Buccaneers fans had it all wrong. They were ashamed of their offense. Repulsed by its hideousness. Convinced it was a blemish on their otherwise pristine being.
They never understood ugly could be liberating.
Just look at the Baltimore Ravens -- if you can stomach it.
Now here's a team, and a city, that knows from ugly. Ugly passes, ugly play calling, ugly execution. But the Ravens glory in their frumpish ways. They have come to realize that beauty is in the lights of the scoreboard.
Baltimore has paired a breathtaking defense with a wallflower offense and driven itself to a date for the AFC Championship.
"The styles of the two teams are very similar," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "Their approach this year was very much like ours, and they've had great success with it. The thing that impresses me is they've done something similar to what we've done. They hit a midseason skid and righted themselves. And they've gained confidence every week. That's a hard thing to do, and it's a credit to their staff and the players."
If it was painful for the Bucs to look at themselves in the mirror after their flameout in the playoffs, it must be excruciating to look at the Ravens on television. It's like watching an identical twin win a beauty contest.
"That's what I keep hearing from people back home," said Ravens center Jeff Mitchell, a Countryside High and University of Florida product. "They say we look just like the Bucs."
Baltimore's defense is built around an oversized Pro Bowl defensive tackle (Sam Adams), a sideline-to-sideline linebacker (Ray Lewis) and a savvy field leader at safety (Rod Woodson). Does that scheme sound familiar to the roles played by Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch in Tampa Bay?
The philosophy on offense also is similar: Don't foul up your defense's efforts.
That means establishing the run, converting third downs and not turning the ball over.
Quarterback Trent Dilfer alluded to Baltimore's conservative ways when he was asked Wednesday what it will be like playing this weekend in Oakland, which is about 50 miles from where he grew up, Santa Cruz.
"There are going to be a lot of similarities," Dilfer deadpanned. "I used to throw about 14 or 15 passes a game in high school, too."
The Ravens are a bad offensive team, but unlike the Bucs, they have not tried to hide from it.
All they ask of Dilfer is to avoid turnovers (he has not thrown an interception in two playoff games) and to hit a big play or two (he has completed a pass of more than 50 yards in both playoff games). After losing his first start for the Ravens, Dilfer has won nine in a row.
"You can't deny his success. The only important statistic is winning," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He understands that part of his job was to not put us in a position to lose the game, and that's what he's done.
"You people are always talking about how big numbers don't mean a thing if a guy hasn't won. Well, here's a guy who has done nothing but win, and now you're saying that's not enough."
Still skeptical that Baltimore's offense could be worse than Tampa Bay's? Consider this: The Bucs offense scored 36 touchdowns. The Ravens scored 29.
The Ravens scored fewer offensive touchdowns than any playoff team and less than several non-contenders. They scored fewer offensive touchdowns than either Seattle or San Francisco, and those two combined to go 12-20.
Billick made his mark in the NFL as an offensive coordinator in Minnesota, helping the Vikings in 1998 set the league record for most points in a season. It goes against his nature to play so conservative on offense, but he is smart enough to realize it is his best chance to win. And he and Tony Dungy are not the only coaches with that mind-set.
"Just look at the Super Bowl champions from over the last 10 years. Most of them have been offensive-dominated, quarterback-driven teams," Billick said. "But this year, clearly there is a difference. Whether that's going to hold true down the road, who knows? But this year, good defense, a good running game, playing special teams, seems to be the mode to win."
The most crucial statistic for both teams is turnover margin. Each expects turnovers from the defense and shuns giveaways by the offense. Baltimore led the AFC in turnover ratio. Tampa Bay led the NFC.
So where did the Bucs go wrong?
Big plays seem to be the difference. The Ravens made a ton of big plays on defense, and the Bucs failed to make enough big plays on offense. The difference shows in close games. Baltimore was 4-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. The Bucs were 4-5.
Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said Dilfer, who came to Baltimore from Tampa Bay before this season, is the difference.
"I think the one thing Tampa did was tell Trent, 'Don't lose the ballgame.' They never said, 'Trent win a ballgame for us,' " Sharpe said. "What Brian says to Trent is, 'If there is a play to be made, then make it. By the same token, don't put us in a position where the defense has to come on the field and the (other) team has to go 20 or 30 yards for a touchdown.'
"If the play is there, we ask Trent to make it. If it is not there, we live to see another day."
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AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Ravens at Raiders, 4:15 p.m. Sunday.
TV: Ch. 10.
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