The love affair between an old, historic NFL city and its new professional football team has been rekindled in the 2000 season.

An affection once reserved for the Baltimore Colts and such legends as John Unitas, Lenny Moore and John Mackey has grown to include the Ravens and their modern-day stars of Ray Lewis, Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson.

When the Ravens play in Super Bowl XXXV against the New York Giants on Sunday in Tampa, Fla., the cycle will have been completed. The Colts created memories in Baltimore from 1947 through 1983, and now the Ravens are forming their own bond in a community that has gone Ravens-crazy.

Purple-mania has arrived.

Local sporting goods stores are selling out of team merchandise. Area schools have had Ravens days. Purple lights shine throughout a city where the mayor has attended team practices during the playoffs. Young children paint their faces purple and black, and statues inside City Hall are clad in purple jerseys.

The boulevard on which the team's practice facility is located has been temporarily renamed Ravens Boulevard, and there aren't many conversations in bars where the talk doesn't turn to the Ravens.

"The response in this city to what we've done so far has been humongous," said Ravens owner Art Modell. "I've had many, many playoff games, four championships in Cleveland prior to this one, but nothing has turned a town on like we have witnessed in Baltimore. This city has been denied football for 13 years, and all their pent-up emotions were channeled toward the Eagles, Redskins, Jets, Giants and even Miami, where they tried to find a kindred spirit.

"When we came in here in the dark days in Memorial Stadium, we didn't do too much either, but at least they had something to hang on to," Modell said. "The attachment grew, the romance grew to where it is now a full-grown love affair. Every player, every coach, cannot get over the response given to them. It has been overwhelming."

It really is an amazing run to glory. There is hardly anyone, even the Ravens themselves, who believed they would play in Super Bowl XXXV. The most reasonable scenario was an outside chance at the playoffs, especially with the defending AFC Central champion Jacksonville Jaguars and defending AFC champion Tennessee Titans in the same division.

But this is a story about a team whose best player, middle linebacker Ray Lewis, was involved in a double-murder trial in May, and had to play five of its first seven games on the road.

The Ravens shuffled quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers during the regular season, a sure formula for disaster, and also endured five games without scoring a touchdown, losing three.

For an encore, they had to play successive road games against Tennessee in the AFC semifinals and the Oakland Raiders in the conference championship game.

Having faith

It was always an uphill battle, but it ended with a trip to the Super Bowl.

"Never at any point did I feel we were out of it," said Ravens president David Modell. "Faith is faith. You have to have it. It's not like a library book where you can turn it in at any time at your own convenience."

Coach Brian Billick said: "There are a lot of things in the game that tear at the heart and fabric of the team concept - salary cap, free agents and the media to name a few. What allows you to handle and sometimes overcome all of this is chemistry and character. We have both of those in abundance. We have enough to stare into the abyss and grow strong.

"We did it when we went through our three-game losing streak and our touchdown drought," he said. "We've won with shutouts, and we've won with great comebacks at the ends of games, especially against Jacksonville at home and Tennessee in November. We're ready for the Super Bowl and what it may bring."

Thank goodness for the Ravens' defense and Pro Bowl kicker Matt Stover.

Defense has been the team's most consistent weapon throughout the 2000 season. There will be debates for years about how this unit compares with other great defenses, such as those of the mid-1980s Chicago Bears and the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. But these facts can't be denied:

The Ravens set 16-game records in points, 165, and rushing yards, 970, allowed. They recorded four shutouts, one shy of the post-merger NFL record held by the 1976 Steelers. The Ravens finished first in the league in six defensive categories and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past 33 games.

And they have possibly the NFL's best player in Lewis, who was named the Associated Press' Defensive Player of the Year.

Blue-collar team

But though Lewis is the most distinguished, the Ravens have other players with a blue-collar work ethic, such as defensive tackle Tony Siragusa and defensive ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett. They also have potential superstars in outside linebacker Peter Boulware and cornerback Chris McAlister. The Ravens placed three defensive players on the AFC Pro Bowl squad in Lewis, free safety Woodson and tackle Sam Adams, a top free-agent acquisition in the off-season along with tight end Sharpe.

"They can say all they want about offense, but defense wins Super Bowls," said reserve defensive end Keith Washington. "When you can punch someone in the mouth like we do every week, it's a good thing. There is nothing wrong with that."

Said Sharpe: "With our defense, we know that offensively we can't afford to lose this game. That is the approach we're taking. We are not going there and fool anybody and say we're going to try to put 30 or 35 points on the board."

The Ravens tried a wide-open approach on offense earlier in the year, and it didn't work. The team started 4-1, but the early signs of offensive trouble came in Game No. 5, when the Ravens relied on four field goals to beat the Cleveland Browns, 12-0.

The drought

The Ravens went four more games without scoring a touchdown, losing the last three to the Washington Redskins, Tennessee and Steelers. After losing, 14-6, to the Titans, Billick benched starting quarterback Tony Banks for Trent Dilfer, who got similar results in a 9-6 loss to Pittsburgh.

Banks, though, was only part of the problem. The Ravens had a wide-open approach but a new tight end in Sharpe and rookies in wide receiver Travis Taylor and running back Jamal Lewis, the No. 5 overall draft pick last April, who didn't start the first three games of the season.

The national media ridiculed the Ravens during the scoring drought that Art Modell called "The Dust Bowl." But Billick was able to head off any dissension between his offensive and defensive players.

"Obviously, that was the low point in the season," McCrary said. "But I think Brian did a good job of keeping us together, giving us confidence. We went from 5-1 to 5-4, and he said the same people laughing at us now we would be laughing at when we're 12-4."

Even some of the fans started to doubt.

"I guess to some degree we all started wondering what was going to happen, that we weren't going to get to Billick's promised land," said Fred Henson, 33, of Sykesville. "I didn't stop watching or rooting for them, but I did lose some hope."

The Ravens came out of the touchdown-less funk Nov. 5 with a 27-7 win against the Cincinnati Bengals, and then pulled a major upset a week later by defeating Tennessee, 24-23, to become the only team to defeat the Titans at Adelphia Coliseum.

The Ravens followed with two more convincing wins, 27-0 against the Dallas Cowboys and 44-7 over Cleveland, but the passing offense went into a mini-slump during the last three games of the season. It was then that Billick, who has often been criticized for being "too cute" on offense with his "explosive" and "vertical plays," seemed to realize that the team's formula for success would be to combine the team's dominating defense with a ball-control offense.

A star was born in Jamal Lewis, who in the final eight regular-season games (the last seven of which were wins) had 1,254 yards from the line of scrimmage, representing 44 percent of the Ravens' 2,837 total net yards.

The defense, which had yielded 309 total yards against the Arizona Cardinals and 524 total yards in the final two games of the regular season, turned up the intensity in the playoffs.

The Ravens, in the first NFL playoff game in Baltimore since 1977, held Denver to 177 total yards in the wild-card game, a 21-3 Ravens win. The odds seemed to be stacked against the Ravens when playing the Titans on the road in the AFC semifinals, but the Ravens blocked two field-goal tries and special teams player Anthony Mitchell returned one of those 90 yards for a touchdown. Ray Lewis returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter in the Ravens' stunning, 24-10 victory.

Oakland was a six-point favorite in the AFC championship game, and the Raiders had the most balanced offense and the league's rowdiest fans. But the Ravens held the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack to 24 yards and got a 96-yard touchdown from Sharpe on a 10-yard pass in a 16-3 victory.

Winning ugly

The Ravens don't win pretty. Sharpe has become virtually the team's only offensive weapon in the playoffs. He caught a twice-batted pass and ran 58 yards for a touchdown against Denver. In the playoff game against Tennessee, Sharpe set up the Ravens' only touchdown, a 1-yard run by Lewis, on a 56-yard reception down the left sideline.

Those kinds of plays and turnovers have worked in the Ravens' favor all season. Those kinds of plays have made fans believe the Ravens are a team of destiny that will win Super Bowl XXXV.

If that happens, Baltimore might become a football town again, just as it was when the Colts were here.

"I was here in the late '60s when the Colts went to the Super Bowl," said Harvey Kettering, 45, a food technologist from Baltimore. "Those were the days when the Colts ruled Baltimore, even though the Orioles were a good team and going to the playoffs. I think the Ravens will rule the city again."

"At the beginning, I didn't believe we were going to be that good," said Evelyn Boricm, 37, of Cockeysville. "This just makes me realize that miracles can happen."