The Ravens marched into the playoffs as much on memory as they did on might.
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 in this city's first Monday Night Football game in more than two decades.
Behind an unrelenting defense, a stout running game and the reliable leg of kicker Matt Stover, the Ravens (10-6) earned the AFC's fifth seed and will begin their title defense against the Dolphins at Miami in Sunday's wild-card round. Minnesota (5-11), which went winless on the road this season, showed little fight three days after coach Dennis Green stepped down.
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.
Brookins was stopped on two runs from the 1, and the Ravens had to settle for a 20-yarder from Stover to go ahead, 6-3, with 6:29 remaining in the second quarter.
"You don't get that many shots," Billick said, "and you've got to punch it in somehow."
The Ravens avoided another mistake from their special teams because their defense again rose to the occasion.
With 1:10 left in the first half, Ravens long snapper Dale Hellestrae, who was signed on Thursday to replace injured Joe Maese, made his third straight poor delivery to Richardson. Unable to control the low snap, Richardson was forced to fall on the ball at the Ravens' 10.
On the Vikings' first play, Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister made a one-handed interception in the end zone despite Moss hanging over his back.
"It looked like they were throwing a fade route to the back of the end zone and I had position on Randy the entire time," McAlister said of his first interception of the season. "I just had a feeling it was coming to him. With the position I had, no matter where he threw it, it was mine."
It wasn't Wynn's only miscalculation. Forced into the start by injuries, the Vikings' 23-year-old third-string quarterback completed just 13 of 29 passes for 86 yards, with another interception.
Striking quickly, Brandon Stokley's career-long 46-yard reception led to Stover's 38-yard field goal as the first half ended, giving the Ravens a 9-3 lead.
Toward the end of the third quarter, the Ravens drove but again fell short of the end zone. Stover's 20-yard field goal capped the Ravens' third scoring drive of five minutes or longer, staking them to a 12-3 lead with 3:52 left in the third quarter.
That set the stage for the defense to close out the game. With 1:37 remaining, Boulware recorded his fourth sack of the game, forcing a fumble that was returned by Sharper for his first career touchdown.
It marked the third time this season that the Ravens refused to surrender a touchdown.
"We came into this game and knew our mind-set," Lewis said. "We knew what kind of offense they had. They have a lot of weapons with Cris and Randy. We set the foundation and did what we had to, getting the ball back to our offense.
"This is our playoff game at home. Now we've got three on the road, and we're up for it."