The football world was supposed to see how far the Ravens had fallen after their historic salary cap dismantling.
Instead, the Ravens ripped apart the previously unbeaten Denver Broncos in the first half last night before escaping with a 34-23 victory, seizing the national spotlight and commanding new respect to wrap up the NFL season's unpredictable first month.
Turning their trash-talk rhetoric into reality, the Ravens (1-2) strutted to within a half game of the AFC North-leading Browns and will play for the division lead Sunday night in Cleveland. The Broncos (3-1) imploded with untimely penalties and special teams gaffes to became the fifth previously undefeated team to fall in Week 4.
"Only in America can you win one game and still be in it," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "So, God bless America."
Said inside linebacker Ray Lewis: "I really think it was a young ballclub coming out and just fighting. The rest is history."
The Ravens' offense, which hadn't scored in 123 1/2 minutes, struck for three touchdowns during a 31-point second quarter, the most prolific quarter in franchise history.
Tight end Todd Heap, who had been averaging 5 yards a catch, overshadowed his mentor, Shannon Sharpe, with several acrobatic catches and finished with five receptions for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
"That [second] quarter was wild," said Ravens quarterback Chris Redman. "It was great we came together as a team."
The Ravens' ambush was sparked by a special teams sneak attack.
Fielding a missed field-goal attempt 8 yards deep in the end zone, McAlister slowed up near the goal line but decided not to take a knee. Breaking free to the outside after a crushing hit by Lewis on the Broncos' Keith Burns at the 5, McAlister went 108 yards untouched and starting high-stepping for the final 30 yards as Billick followed him down the sideline with his hands raised.
The longest play in NFL history gave the Ravens a commanding 31-3 first-half lead.
"That's the way we practice it," McAlister said. "I watched and hung in the end zone and let my guys set up the wall. All I saw was purple jerseys and green until I hit the end zone."
The Ravens went into cruise control in the second half and never let their lead dwindle under 11 points as Denver closed out the game with three touchdowns. They have won 31 straight games when leading in the fourth quarter - the longest current streak in the NFL.
"I told the team just before we came out to follow me," said Lewis, who recorded 18 tackles, broke up two passes and made an interception. "Match my passion. Match my energy."
Broncos defensive tackle Lional Dalton, a former Raven, was impressed by his ex-team.
"They just kicked our butts in every phase," Dalton said. "Brian Billick has [Denver coach] Mike Shanahan's number. He owns him. They were ready to play and we weren't. We made their season. They just won their Super Bowl."
Trailing 3-0 and with their scoreless drought having been extended to eight quarters, the Ravens went on the attack in the second quarter.
On third-and-one at the Denver 23, Redman made a play-action fake and lofted the ball to Heap in the end zone. With safety Kenoy Kennedy turned around, Heap leaped over him and caught the touchdown pass 45 seconds into the second quarter. It ended the Ravens' scoreless streak at 22 drives.
"I always wanted to play in big games," Heap said. "That's what I learned from Shannon Sharpe."
The Ravens tightened control of their momentum with the first big play by Reed, their first-round draft pick. Flying off the edge, Reed blocked Tom Rouen's punt and gave the Ravens possession at Denver's 13-yard line. It was the first blocked punt in Ravens history.
Three plays later, Jamal Lewis (25 carries, 78 yards) powered in on a 2-yard touchdown run. The two touchdowns in less than a four-minute span staked the Ravens to a 14-3 advantage with 10:25 left in the first half.
While the Ravens were overflowing with confidence, the Broncos were falling apart. Five Denver penalties - ranging from unsportsmanlike conduct to taunting to a late hit - accounted for 51 of the Ravens' 81-yard scoring drive.
The Ravens capped that possession with a 23-yard field goal by Matt Stover, pushing the margin to 17-3 with 1:57 left in the second quarter.
"Yeah, they were losing their cool," Jamal Lewis said. "We got in their heads early and we dominated up front."
On the next series, Ray Lewis popped running back Mike Anderson in the back and caught a pass that caromed off Anderson. Lewis' interception was the Ravens' first turnover of the season, but the heroics would be left to Heap.
After making a one-handed, 33-yard catch in double coverage, Heap ended the drive by making a midair adjustment on a fade pattern and pulling in a 3-yard touchdown catch. Heap accounted for all 36 yards in that possession and lifted the Ravens to a 24-3 lead.
"That's the kind of athleticism which is rare for that position," Billick said. "More importantly, him and Chris are developing a rapport."
Denver tried to slow the disastrous stretch with Jason Elam's 57-yard field-goal try one second before halftime. But McAlister stopped any momentum swing, as he was ushered down the field by an emphatic Billick.
"I was telling him to run faster," Billick said.
The Broncos tried to come back with two touchdowns in the third quarter and closed to within 11 points on a 1-yard run by quarterback Brian Griese with 4:42 left in the fourth quarter.
The rally ended when Elam missed 44-yard field-goal attempt, and Redman kneeled three times to run out the clock.
"A win on Monday night against a team that's supposed to kill us, that's awesome," said Ravens left guard Edwin Mulitalo. "The only downside is that we didn't finish. We have to play four quarters."
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