Dusting off a dominant yet familiar formula, the defending Super Bowl champions clinched the league's final playoff spot by hammering the reeling Minnesota Vikings, 19-3, last night before 69,465 at PSINet Stadium in this city's first Monday Night Football game in more than two decades.
Reminiscent of last season, the Ravens' suffocating defense seized control of the game with four turnovers and sealed a trip to the postseason in the end with the contest's only touchdown. Defensive end Peter Boulware's AFC-leading 15th sack jolted overmatched quarterback Spergon Wynn into a fumble that was returned 8 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Jamie Sharper with 1:37 left in the game.
The Ravens delivered their stingiest effort on defense, limiting a loaded Minnesota offense to a total of 179 yards of total offense and 10 first downs. In the final three quarters, the Ravens allowed the Vikings to drive into their territory just twice.
"Offense wins games, defense wins championships," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Just ride us, baby. We'll get you to the Super Bowl."
With an offensive line opening gaping holes, the Ravens relied on a running back by committee to churn out a season-high 212 rushing yards and control the clock for 33 1/2 of the game's 60 minutes. The resurgence of 12-year back Terry Allen continued as he gained a season-best 133 yards.
Adhering to a ground-oriented game plan, the Ravens ran the ball on 42 of 71 plays. Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac threw for only 160 yards but, more importantly, didn't commit a turnover.
"Play good defense and run the ball, that's a good formula going into the playoffs," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "You'd better go in with a swagger or don't go in because you'll get your butt kicked."
The game remained close because the Ravens repeatedly stalled deep in the red zone. They had seven runs inside the Vikings' 4-yard line and never came away with a touchdown.
The sure-footed Stover stepped up to provide the points, kicking field goals of 21, 20, 38 and 20 yards to bounce the Seattle Seahawks and former Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer out for that last playoff bid.
"It's frustrating getting it down there and not punching it in," Billick said. "We could have taken the game over a lot earlier."
On its second possession, Minnesota struck for its only points of the game with help from the Ravens and some trickery.
An 11-yard shank off the side of Ravens punter Kyle Richardson's right foot set up the Vikings at their 38-yard line, and a perfect 29-yard pass from receiver Randy Moss to Cris Carter off an end around moved them to the Ravens' 23. But Minnesota stumbled from there and needed Gary Anderson's 26-yard field goal to put the Vikings ahead, 3-0, with 5:50 left in the first quarter.
The Ravens immediately answered with a drive that would resemble future ones. Rolling down to the Minnesota 3-yard line, Ravens running back Jason Brookins was stopped for no gain on a third-and-one and the Ravens decided to play it safe.
Stover kicked a 21-yard field goal to begin the second quarter, tying the game at 3.
"In situations like this, you don't want to take chances," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "With the way our defense is playing, why take chances? That might be our MO. We might have to do that again."
Three minutes later, the Ravens' defense delivered a striking blow. Closing quickly on a short catch by Carter, Ravens cornerback Duane Starks punched the ball out with his right hand and safety Rod Woodson recovered at the Vikings' 45-yard line.
Keeping to their deliberate game plan, the Ravens ran five times in a row to get deep inside Minnesota territory, where they again stalled. On a red-zone series extended by a pass-interference penalty, the Ravens were denied on six tries inside the Vikings' 3.