OAKLAND, Calif. -- Baltimore had just six first downs and 134 yards of offense last week in beating Tennessee to reach the AFC championship games.
No wonder the Oakland Raiders have done little this week but talk about the Ravens' defense. Baltimore set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season: 165, or just over 10 a game.
''We think we're a very good offensive team, but they're a very, very good defense,'' Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon said ''How can you argue with that? They set that record didn't they? That says they're the best defense ever.''
If the road to the Super Bowl for the Ravens goes through Oakland, the road for the Raiders goes through the Baltimore defense -- and Ray Lewis, the NFL's defensive player of the year.
Last week in Nashville, Lewis had 12 tackles and a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown as the Ravens (14-4) beat the Tennessee Titans and moved on to play the Raiders (13-4) for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Hard to believe, but it was Lewis' first TD in five NFL seasons.
But Lewis has plenty of help.
While he's one reason the Ravens have gone 35 games without allowing a back to run for 100 yards, there are others -- Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, 650 pounds of defensive tackles, and Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary at end. Burnett is one of the best all-around ends in the game and McCrary has been one of the game's best pass rushers for the last half-decade.
Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper join Lewis in the game's best linebacking trio and safety Rod Woodson, a member of the NFL's 75th anniversary team, anchors the secondary.
''Ray has played so well that he's obscured the accomplishments of the others,'' Baltimore coach Bryan Billick said. ''Michael and Peter have lower sack totals so they didn't make the Pro Bowl, but they've played 10 times better to help the team. That's what football is all about -- you sacrifice individual statistics for the good of the whole.''
The Raiders understand that.
As a group, the Oakland players don't seem scared of Trent Dilfer, despite his 9-1 record as a starter since taking over at quarterback for Tony Banks after a five-game span in October when Baltimore failed to score a touchdown.
Dilfer's mandate is to make sure there are no mistakes and hand the ball to Jamal Lewis.
The defense concerns the Raiders a lot more, particularly Lewis, whom Denver coach Mike Shanahan called ''one of the best to ever play the game,'' after the Ravens beat his Broncos 21-3 in the wild-card round.
Some Oakland defensive players are getting tired of such praise.
''I've been asked over and over and over about the Ravens' defense,'' cornerback Charles Woodson said. ''I say to hell with their defense. It's how the Raiders play that will decide this game.''
That's the message coach Jon Gruden has been sending, too, particularly to Gannon, whose scrambling has been so important this season. ''He's a Pro Bowl quarterback,'' Gruden says. ''This is the time of year when Pro Bowl quarterbacks step up.''
Gannon got five votes for MVP, won by St. Louis' Marshall Faulk. Lewis got one, standard for a defensive player -- only two defenders have ever won the award, the last Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
Not a bad comparison. Although he plays in the middle and Taylor played outside, Lewis may have earned ''the next Lawrence Taylor'' mantle that so many linebackers have tried to claim.
''I can't imagine any player having as much of an impact on his team,'' Billick said.
The Raiders agree.
If they could vote, they'd add quite a few for Lewis.
And the rest of the Baltimore defense.
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