On a national stage, in a throwback setting, the Ravens took their defensive dominance to a new level yesterday, thrashing the Denver Broncos in a 21-3 wild-card playoff victory at PSINet Stadium.
Playing in frigid temperatures, the Ravens (13-4) advanced to the second round of the American Football Conference playoffs. Fittingly, they'll play the Tennessee Titans (13-3) on Sunday in the rubber match of a hotly contested series in a 12:30 p.m. game at Nashville's Adelphia Coliseum.The first NFL playoff game in Baltimore since 1977 produced the first home playoff win by a Baltimore team since Jan. 3, 1971, when the Colts beat Oakland, 27-17, in the 1970 AFC championship game.
The last playoff victory by a Baltimore NFL team was a 20-3 Colts' triumph in Cleveland on Dec. 26, 1971.
A PSINet record crowd of 69,638 enjoyed every minute of yesterday's frozen masterpiece.
"The emotion was high, because it's been 23 years since this city had a playoff game," said middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who spearheaded the defensive effort with a first-quarter interception and seven tackles.
"I was 2 years old the last playoff game that was in Baltimore. The thing now is to keep rolling. Nothing else matters but the next game."
Although Denver came in with the No. 2-ranked offense in the league, the Ravens allowed the Broncos to cross midfield only once. That was in the second quarter, when a 68-yard drive reached the Baltimore 12.
Defensive tackle Tony Siragusa made a key third-down stop there, and Denver had to settle for a 31-yard field goal by Jason Elam. That was the sum of the Broncos' offense. The Ravens allowed just nine first downs and 177 total yards.
The three points were the fewest in Denver's playoff history, and the Broncos' fewest in any game since Nov. 22, 1992, when they were shut out by the Los Angeles Raiders, 24-0.
The Ravens' slumbering offense came alive with a 75-yard scoring drive and a twice-batted 58-yard touchdown pass - from quarterback Trent Dilfer to tight end Shannon Sharpe - in the first half for a 14-3 lead. The Ravens are 12-1 this season when leading at halftime.
The temperature at kickoff was 22 degrees, and the wind-chill a numbing 5 degrees. The wind, gusting up to 27 mph, made every kick - and most passes - an adventure.
"It was the hardest I've ever played in, and I've played in some windy days," Dilfer said. "The wind was bitter cold, and it was swirling. You never had a downwind to throw. You always seemed like you were throwing the ball into the wind, either direction, either sideline."
It was a day better suited to running than throwing. Dilfer completed nine of 14 passes for 130 yards. His touchdown pass to Sharpe was intended for rookie running back Jamal Lewis in the flat. But the ball deflected off Lewis' hands into the arms of Denver cornerback Terrell Buckley, then back to an out-of-position Sharpe.
"I was supposed to go 10 yards and out," Sharpe said. "I looked at the defense and went 5 [yards] and into the flat."
Sharpe caught the carom and followed two big blocks by Sam Gash and Patrick Johnson as he rumbled down the sideline for the touchdown.
Lewis ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns, one on a spectacular headfirst dive over the line in which he placed the ball on the goal line as he fell. Lewis also scored on a 27-yard breakaway in the third quarter, running through three would-be Denver tacklers.
As if the Ravens weren't enough to contend with, the Broncos' beleaguered offense also struggled with crowd noise. Left tackle Tony Jones, who played with the Ravens in 1996, was flagged for two false starts.
"You don't have a snap count when it is that loud," Jones said. "You can't hear the man next to you. It's a guessing game at that point. The 12th man was strong for them today."
Denver quarterback Gus Frerotte, starting in place of injured Brian Griese, completed 13 of 28 passes for 124 yards. He was sacked four times.
"Yes, it's loud, and guys think they are hearing the cadence," Frerotte said. "But when you come into a place like this and make mistakes, it's hard to overcome. We had false starts, fumbles. When you make mistakes like that, it's hard to win."
The Ravens will now take their Super Bowl quest on the road.
"What superlative can I use to describe how great the fans were?" asked team President David Modell. "If you want to define 12th man, snap a picture of this crowd today and put them in the dictionary, because that's what they were. It was on their wings today. They did a great job."