OAKLAND, Calif.—With 16 seconds left in the biggest game of his life, quarterback Trent Dilfer embraced right guard Mike Flynn and let his emotions flow.
There were tears in his eyes, cameras in his face and joy in his heart.After years of hard knocks and dry runs, Dilfer and the Ravens are going to the Super Bowl. They wrote that improbable chapter yesterday with a suffocating 16-3 victory over the Oakland Raiders in the AFC championship game at Network Associates Coliseum.
The Giants advanced with a 41-0 romp over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game.
In a season when the Ravens have defied odds and turned a late-season winning streak into a Super Bowl run, Dilfer will go back to the site of his greatest NFL hardships. After six trying seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he'll go back as a Super Bowl quarterback.
"Obviously, I'm excited," he said. "The great lesson I've learned in life is that you have to appreciate the moments in your life that are hard. You can't go running from adversity. You have to let it hit you straight in the face.
"I'm very thankful for my years in Tampa. I would not trade one single experience for anything. Those experiences helped develop the man that sits here today. I'm much more mature and much stronger than I've been."
The same could be said for the 15-4 Ravens, who will take a 10-game winning streak to Tampa. They followed their script perfectly yesterday, getting a mix of dominating defense and timely offense.
Baltimore's vise-like defense held Oakland's league-leading running game to a paltry 24 rushing yards on 17 carries. It squeezed five turnovers out of a Raiders offense that had the second-fewest giveaways in the NFL this season.
And it rendered quarterback Rich Gannon injured and ineffective after two hits by defensive end Michael McCrary and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa sent him to the sideline for a critical second-quarter stretch.
"We've got one more challenge," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "They want to make their mark in history. I've never seen so many people so resilient, so confident in each other."
The Ravens' formula may not be pretty, but it is effective. They get enough plays from the offense - they got a postseason record 96-yard touchdown pass against the Raiders - to complement a defense for the ages.
"Can defense win the Super Bowl? Damn right defense can win the Super Bowl," Siragusa said. "But you can't count our offense out. They made big plays today."
The biggest offensive play stunned the Raiders just when they had gained field position and momentum in the second quarter.
A booming 54-yard punt by Shane Lechler and a sack of Dilfer by William Thomas pinned the Ravens on their own 4 early in the period. On third-and-18, the Ravens called Rip Double Slant, ostensibly to get out of the hole. They got much more than that when Oakland showed blitz and tight end Shannon Sharpe became Dilfer's hot read.
Sharpe, lined up in the right slot, ran a slant in front of strong safety Marquez Pope. Curiously, Pope seemed to drop off Sharpe when he made the catch. Then, getting big blocks from wide receivers Brandon Stokley and Patrick Johnson, Sharpe dodged one more tackle and ran down the middle of the field.
Ninety-six yards later, the Ravens had the lead and Dilfer and Sharpe owned the NFL playoff record for longest pass.
"They blitzed us and brought Marquez Pope on Shannon," Dilfer said. "It was supposed to work the other way. We hit it, and he did the rest. I just ran down the field, praying he got to the end zone.
"We were just trying to get out of the hole. When they decided to blitz us, we welcomed it."
The game turned dramatically, and decisively, on the Raiders' first play of their next possession. Just after Gannon launched an incomplete pass toward James Jett, he was leveled by Siragusa, whose 350-pound torso landed on the quarterback's upper body.
"I came down on him with all my weight," Siragusa said. "He screamed a little bit. I knew he was hurt once I fell on him."
Gannon, who went to the locker room to have his left shoulder examined, said he actually hurt the shoulder on a first-series sack by McCrary.
"That's when I first hurt the shoulder, and I reaggravated it on the other one," said Gannon.
Two plays later, backup quarterback Bobby Hoying missed intended receiver Jett badly, and found cornerback Duane Starks instead. Starks, who would get a second interception in the third quarter, returned it 9 yards to the Oakland 20.
The Ravens got as close as the 13, where Matt Stover hit a 31-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.
Gannon returned in the second half and played four series - enough time to get the Raiders back in the game briefly. But he was ineffective and left after committing two more turnovers.
Dilfer ended a streak of 63 consecutive passes without an interception when he opened the second half with one. Safety Johnnie Harris picked off a pass intended for Sharpe to give Oakland the ball at the Baltimore 39 - the Raiders' first foray across midfield.
Gannon's 15-yard completion to tight end Jeremy Brigham and a 12-yard roughing-the-passer penalty on McCrary put the Raiders in scoring position.
But after Oakland got a first down at the 2, the Ravens delivered a goal-line stand that ended with a 24-yard Sebastian Janikowski field goal.
Defensive tackles Lionel Dalton and Sam Adams stopped Tyrone Wheatley for a loss of 1 yard on first down. Linebacker Jamie Sharper sacked Gannon from behind on second down, and Gannon threw behind running back Randy Jordan on third down.
Stover added a 28-yard field goal in the third quarter after Dilfer hit Stokley (13 yards) and Ben Coates (24) for first-down passes. That made it 13-3.
It went to 16-3 when Stover kicked a 21-yarder in the fourth quarter. When Sharper intercepted Hoying at the Ravens' 2 with 3:41 left, it removed the Raiders' last hope.
Dilfer completed nine of 18 passes for 190 yards, his biggest passing total since he threw for 242 on Nov. 19 in a rout of the Dallas Cowboys. He accepts his role without complaint.
"I've got no problem playing second fiddle to our defense," he said. "We do things that make us better. We were second in the league in time of possession. We have a ton of explosive plays. We were best in the league in turnover ratio.
"My teammates carried me. I don't know how good I am, but I'm the best quarterback for this team right now."