After 13 weeks, a change of quarterbacks and the arrival of a phenom running back, the Ravens' true offensive personality has finally emerged.
This may be Brian Billick's passing offense, but it is suddenly Jamal Lewis' ball. And he's not giving it up.Climbing on Lewis' broad back, the Ravens crushed the Cleveland Browns for a landmark 44-7 win yesterday before 68,361 at PSINet Stadium.
The Ravens' ninth victory against four losses assured the franchise of its first winning season, but it was a game that said more about where the team was headed than where it has been.
Counting Tennessee's 16-13 loss to Jacksonville, the Ravens coast into their bye week just a half-game behind the Titans (9-3) in the AFC Central. Should Tennessee lose in Philadelphia next week - a distinct possibility - the Ravens, with four straight wins, would be tied for the division lead and in control of their own playoff destiny.
Lewis gouged the Browns for 170 yards and two touchdowns on a season-high 30 carries to create his own imprint. The Ravens also got two touchdown passes from quarterback Trent Dilfer, 461 yards in total offense and still another stifling defensive effort in ringing up the biggest winning margin of their five-year history.
This is a profile of a team that could turn heads - and level bodies - in January.
"This is something substantial for us," said Billick, the wonder-worker of the Ravens' two-year turnaround. "It classifies us in a certain way. We can take a lot of satisfaction in 1 1/2 years having built to this point."
Lewis, the fifth pick in this year's draft, broke Priest Holmes' single-season rushing record of 1,008 yards yesterday, cruising to 1,095 in just 10 starts.
With 357 rushing yards in the past two weeks, he gives the Ravens an identity they've never before enjoyed.
"If I were to characterize it, I would say we are a running team that has the ability to strike deep if you commit too many people to the run," said left tackle Jonathan Ogden.
"Those are the best teams, in my opinion, that can run the ball at will, but also have the ability to go vertical. That's what Atlanta was a couple years ago when they went to the Super Bowl."
The injury-depleted Browns (3-10) stunned the Ravens with a four-play, 86-yard touchdown drive on their first series. Operating out of a no-huddle, empty-backfield mode, the Browns got a 67-yard pass from Doug Pederson to Kevin Johnson - the longest play against the Ravens this season - and a 4-yard touchdown run from Travis Prentice for a 7-0 lead.
"If it was execution, then we'd have been scared," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said of the first, first-drive touchdown they've surrendered this season. "But we just missed tackles."
The Ravens weren't scared. The Browns gained just 3 net yards the rest of the half and didn't get another first down until the final 1:50 of the second quarter. They finished with just five first downs, a new defensive low for the Ravens.
The offense responded with 44 unanswered points, most in franchise history.
Dilfer supplied the vertical game with a 46-yard touchdown pass to flanker Patrick Johnson, who made a spectacular adjustment on the ball at the 2-yard line. Dilfer, completing 12 of 23 for 169 yards, also threw a 2-yard scoring pass to fullback Sam Gash in a 24-point second-quarter binge.
But the real ramrod of this victory was the precocious Jamal Lewis. He went over middle linebacker Wali Rainer for a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and bolted 36 yards in the second to open a 31-7 lead.
Nobody appreciates Lewis more than Billick. When asked about the wall that rookies usually run into late in the season, the coach gave his unqualified endorsement: "Well, he's running over it, through it, around it, and anywhere it shows up."
Lewis has rushed for 565 yards in his past four games, 658 in his past five. His presence is such that the Ravens have run 95 times in the past two games, compared to 51 passes (including sacks).
"I love when we stick with the running game because it shows our dominance over the other team," said left guard Edwin Mulitalo.
No one expects more from Lewis than Lewis himself.
"I'm not trying to be just any running back," he said. "I'm trying to be great. I want to be great. Whatever is going to make me great, that's what I'm trying to do."
He is already special in Dilfer's eyes.
"He can beat you with speed, he can run you over," Dilfer said. "He's developing a presence in the passing game. He's a very good blocker.
"When he becomes as good a blocker and receiver as he is a runner, he's going to be the best in the league."
Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe concurred, but threw out one important qualifier.
"I see a lot of guys come in the first year and have success, and then they don't do the things it took to get to that position," Sharpe said. "He'll have to work harder because the level of expectation he sets for himself and what people set for him is going to be higher."
The Ravens closed out their AFC Central schedule with an 8-2 record. That record, and their AFC mark of 8-3, could prove critical in a potential tiebreaker scenario with the Titans, with whom they split.
At the very least, the Ravens are poised for a strong finishing run. They averaged 470 total yards the past two weeks. In the past three, Dilfer has thrown four touchdown passes of longer than 40 yards. It is an offense preparing to make a playoff statement.
"It says when we execute, we can do whatever we want to do," Johnson said. "It has nothing to do with the defense out there. If we execute our plays, it doesn't matter who is out there."
All that matters at this point is who is in the way.