Originally created 12/29/00

Two of league's top rookies face off

DENVER -- As the fifth pick in the 2000 draft, Jamal Lewis received a multimillion-dollar contract and was asked to meet the expectations associated with his first-round status.

As the 189th pick, Mike Anderson received a modest contract and was asked to play the role of a fire extinguisher. "In case of emergency, break glass."

Two rookie running backs. Two different paths to distinction in the NFL.

Their roads will intersect Sunday when Anderson and the Denver Broncos (11-5) travel to Baltimore to face Lewis and the Ravens (12-4) in an AFC wild-card game.

"It'll be exciting," Anderson said. "I'm looking forward to Sunday. We're both two young guys in the backfield and I'm looking at it as a challenge."

Despite the discrepancy in their draft status, Anderson and Lewis have enjoyed similar success in their first season.

Anderson, who is 6-foot, 230 pounds, ran for a Denver single-season rookie record 1,500 yards and caught 23 passes for 169 yards, while starting 12 of 16 games.

Lewis, 5-11 and 231 pounds, ran for a Baltimore single-season record 1,364 yards and caught 27 passes for 296 yards, while starting 13 of 16 games.

"Both are power backs. Both guys have good speed and both guys will make you miss if they need to, so I definitely see a lot of similarities between the two," said Broncos linebacker Al Wilson, who was roommates with Lewis at Tennessee.

Age is one of the few differences between Anderson, 27, and Lewis, 21.

While Anderson was overlooked in part because of his age, the Ravens considered Lewis a future star because he played just two full seasons at Tennessee. A knee injury sidelined him for much of 1998, but that did little to deter Baltimore.

"When you invest the fifth pick in a back, you have certain expectations," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "There were things we saw in Jamal that I guess the rest of the world is now seeing - his size, his speed, his power, his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield."

Baltimore illustrated its confidence in Lewis by giving him a six-year, $35.3 million contract that included a $6.5 million signing bonus. Anderson, an ex-Marine who has given new meaning to "active duty," is in the first year of a three-year, $800,000 deal.

"His signing bonus was probably larger than my entire three-year contract," Anderson joked. "But hey, that's the way the ball bounces sometimes."

Each back's value Sunday will be measured not in dollars, but rather in sweat, yards and success. Because of the threat both pose, stopping the run will be an equal priority for Denver and Baltimore.

Anderson ran for at least 100 yards in six games this season - including an NFL rookie record 251 against New Orleans - but the Ravens defense, led by MVP candidate Ray Lewis, has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 33 straight games.

"I think as far as number-wise, it's a pretty close matchup," Denver offensive lineman Dan Neil said. "They've got a great run defense and we've had success running the ball, so it's a challenge for us. It's going to come down to if we can run the ball against them."

The Broncos, meanwhile, have had their share of problems against the run. Cincinnati's Corey Dillon had an NFL-record 278 yards in Week 8, and Kansas City's Tony Richardson had a career-high 156 yards rushing just two weeks ago.

"Our focus is to eliminate the running game, period," defensive tackle Mike Lodish said. "That's the No. 1 thing. If we can shut that big back down and not have cartoons written about us, we'll do very well in the playoffs."

Regardless of the outcome, Lewis and Anderson have established themselves as rising stars who are the leading candidates for NFL offensive rookie of the year, which will be announced Monday.

"Mike Anderson is on my team," Wilson said, "so I vote for him."


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