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Eisenberg: Will Football Prevail Over Fate?


Like most people around here, I began entertaining pertinent questions as soon as it was determined the Tennessee Titans were taking on the Ravens in a divisional playoff game Saturday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

Can the edges of the Ravens' rushing defense hold up enough to keep Derrick Henry, Tennessee's powerful running back, from taking over the game, as he did in New England? (I expect the Titans to attack those edges rather than Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce inside.)

Can Tennessee's very-familiar defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, somehow devise a way to slow down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' offense? In a week? (Tough assignment. Very tough.)

Is there an under-the-radar storyline that could prove important? (How about that Tennessee's defense gave up nine touchdown passes and 916 receiving yards to tight ends this season? Only two other teams gave up more touchdown passes to tight ends. Hello, Mark Andrews.)

But while it's inevitable to focus on X's and O's, I also found myself pondering a more metaphysical aspect of the matchup. Like, just how powerful are the football gods? Because one could easily make the case for this game being all about fate.

I apologize for the way my mind works. It's just I've been around long enough to understand the playoff history between these teams, and, well, we've got ourselves a bit of a situation this week.

The Ravens are the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed, expected to go far after a dominant regular season. The Titans are lower-seeded underdogs hoping a late-season surge helps them spring a surprise.

It's an exact replica of the playoff games between the teams in 2000 and 2008, just with the tables turned. The Titans were the No. 1 seed in both of those years, expected to go far after dominant regular seasons. (They went 13-3 both years.) The Ravens were the lower-seeded underdogs (No. 4 in 2000, No. 6 in 2008) trying to summon some late-season magic.

Both times, the Ravens won.

The games are warmly remembered here, but in Tennessee, as you might imagine, they're recalled bitterly, as wonderful opportunities lost.

You probably understand that better now, with the situations reversed. I mean, if the sixth-seeded Titans were to spring the upset Saturday night against a Ravens team that has won 12 straight games and went 14-2 during the regular season, can you imagine the disappointment around Baltimore?

And if one believes the adage about things evening out over time and "what goes around comes around," the Titans are owed a mega-upset over Baltimore.

Yes, they did score a mild playoff upset in 2003, coming to Baltimore and winning a wild-card-round game as a No. 5 seed over the fourth-seeded Ravens.

But eliminating a top seed as exceptional as this year's Ravens would be a whole other level of shocking.

I'm not expecting it to happen. The Ravens won five more games than Tennessee during the 2019 regular season. That's a whopping disparity. The difference between the teams wasn't nearly as great in 2000 and 2008, despite the differences in their seeding. The Titans scored just one more regular-season win than Baltimore in 2000 and just two more in 2008.

In other words, the Ravens are more superior to the Titans this season than the Titans were to the Ravens in 2000 and 2008.

Yes, the Titans have come on strong since Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota as their starting quarterback, going 7-3 down the stretch of the regular season and upsetting the Patriots last weekend. They're well-coached, with a strong running game – qualities that can help road teams in January.

Still, I can't get past the math. The Ravens are averaging 33.2 points per game. They've never scored less than 20. I'm thinking they're good for, say, at least 28 against the Titans, who ranked No. 21 in yards allowed. That puts a lot of pressure on Tennessee's offense to keep up against a Baltimore defense ranked No. 4 in yards allowed. The odds are against them.

If the Ravens win, I guess it means what goes around doesn't always come around. Sometimes, football trumps fate.

Moral of the story, a 14-win team is quite a force.

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