The Ravens scored a historic 16-3 victory over the Oakland Raiders atNetwork Associates Coliseum yesterday to join the National Football Conferencechampion New York Giants in the Jan. 28 championship showcase at Raymond JamesStadium in Tampa, Fla.
Oft-maligned quarterback Trent Dilfer teamed with Super Bowl veteranShannon Sharpe on a record-breaking 96-yard touchdown pass in the secondquarter, and the Ravens' smothering defense did the rest, roughing up Raidersquarterback Rich Gannon and holding the NFL's best rushing team to just 24yards on the ground.
There were a few tense moments in the final minutes of the game, but forevery offensive foray by the Raiders, there was a decisive, dramatic answer bya Ravens defense that has earned a place among the greatest in NFL history.
What a day for venerable Ravens owner Art Modell, who will crown his 40thyear as an NFL owner with his first Super Bowl appearance.
Modell won an NFL title in 1964 - two seasons before the NFL and theAmerican Football League hooked up for the first Super Bowl - but theBrowns-turned-Ravens franchise was one of only nine NFL teams that had neverplayed in pro football's signature event.
"I'm doubly honored," Modell said during the American Football Conferencetrophy ceremony after the game. "I'm gratified by the great support we havegotten from the fans in Baltimore, and I want to thank my friends in Clevelandwho supported us for 35 years."
The emotion was written all over his face. He had endured so much criticism- so much heartache - in the wake of the move from Cleveland to Baltimore in1996 that it figured to take a trip to the Super Bowl to make things right.
"I can't imagine what this means to the Modell family," said Ravensowner-in-waiting Stephen J. Bisciotti, who attended the game with his family."The respect that they engendered through the last 40 years - to be treatedthe way they have been - it's a nice vindication for a guy who didn't deserveto be vilified in the first place."
The road was long, in many ways. The team had to travel from Cleveland toBaltimore to acquire the financial wherewithal to regain its place amongfootball's most storied franchises.
Modell said at the time of the move that in five years, the Ravens would bea team to be reckoned with, but the Ravens had to travel another hard road tomake that prediction come true.
The Ravens had to go to Tennessee to upset the defending AFC championTennessee Titans last week, then travel coast-to-coast to face another 6-pointfavorite in one of the league's most intimidating venues.
`Black Hole' hype
The notorious Raiders fans were as raucous as usual, but the "Black Hole"(the most infamous cheering section in the stadium) turned out to be so muchsilver-and-black hype - falling eerily silent after Sharpe broke away on hisrecord touchdown catch and run.
"When we did that, we covered up the hole," Sharpe said.
It was hard for the Ravens to resist a few parting shots at the Raidersfaithful after being peppered with coins and debris when they took the fieldbefore the game.
"An astronomer once told me that a black hole, technically, is a star thathas burned out," said receiver Qadry Ismail. "You can read into that whateveryou want."
The 96-yard touchdown also went a long way toward restoring the reputationof Dilfer, who went on to throw for 190 yards and earn a trip back to the citywhere he spent most of his sometimes star-crossed NFL career.
"All I think he's done is put up 10 straight wins and get into the SuperBowl," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "You can quantify that any way youwant, but he is the quarterback in the Super Bowl."
Sharpe used the opportunity to speak up for the entire offensive unit,which came under intense criticism after going five straight games - and theentire month of October - without scoring a touchdown.
"I just want to ask America, `What does crow taste like?'" Sharpe crowed,"because you all are eating it tonight."
Greater meaning? Dilfer wasn't interested.
"It just means I'm in the Super Bowl with the greatest bunch of guys I'veever played football with," he said. "Before the game, Shannon told me, `Lookinto my eyes. ... I'm going to make some plays for you today.' I told him,`Good, because I'll need them.'"
Sharpe has made a huge play in each of the Ravens' three playoff games. Hepulled in a deflected pass and ran 58 yards for a touchdown in the Ravens'21-3 victory over the Denver Broncos at PSINet Stadium two weeks ago and madea 56-yard catch-and-run to set up the Ravens' first touchdown in last week'swin over the Titans.
Forget about "The Drive," when John Elway took the Denver Broncos down thefield in the 1986 AFC championship game to rob Modell of his first real shotat football's greatest showcase.
Forget about "The Fumble," which has haunted Ravens executive Earnest Bynersince 1987.
All was forgiven after the Ravens became the third AFC wild-card team infour years to navigate that difficult route through the playoffs.
There would be no last-minute quarterback heroics by Gannon, because Ravensdefensive lineman Tony Siragusa knocked the fight out of him with a vicioushit in the second quarter - aggravating a jammed shoulder first suffered on asack by Michael McCrary - and he missed the rest of the first half. Gannontried to come back in the third quarter, but his inability to throw the ballaccurately eventually persuaded Raiders coach Jon Gruden to go back to backupBobby Hoying.
Hoying staged a last-ditch drive in the fourth quarter, but his touchdownpass to Andre Rison was called back because of a penalty, and linebacker JamieSharper grabbed the Ravens' fourth interception of the game to end any threatthat the Raiders might get back in the game.
Minutes later, Modell - with the entire Ravens team crowded around him -accepted the AFC trophy from friend and San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos.Two weeks from now, he will face another close NFL ally when Giants ownerWellington Mara joins him in the Super Bowl.
Mara's team rolled into the Super Bowl on a 41-0 victory over the MinnesotaVikings at Giants Stadium. New York quarterback Kerry Collins - like Dilfer,often the subject of harsh criticism - threw for 381 yards and fivetouchdowns.
"It was emotional," Modell said. "It was very emotional with Alex Spanosgiving me the trophy and all the other people up there. They seemed to sharemy joy."
Sun staff writer Paul McMullen contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun