If the Ravens make this road trek to the Super Bowl, they will remember that it began with a marathon run by Ed Reed.
Zigzagging his way for a 64-yard interception return for a touchdown - the longest in Ravens postseason history - Reed delivered the game-turning blow in a 27-9 win over the Miami Dolphins yesterday.
The first sixth seed to win in the first round since the 2005 season, the Ravens advanced to the AFC divisional round to play at the top-seeded Tennessee Titans on Saturday. One more win would send the Ravens to the AFC championship game.
"Here we come," said Reed, who accounted for two of the Ravens' five takeaways. "Here come the Ravens. The team you don't want to see."
As the Ravens did in their previous playoff victory - which came seven years ago - they won with defense. And no one is more feared on this defense than Reed.
With the score tied at 3 in the second quarter, Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington threw a wild pass downfield. It was so wild that Reed had to extend his arms and make an over-the-shoulder catch.
Quickly circling around while holding the ball extended in his left hand, Reed went from the right side of the field to the left, before cutting back to the right, where the Ravens' defense had set up a wall.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata provided the first key block, lowering his shoulder to knock wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. off his feet. Then, defensive end-linebacker Terrell Suggs provided the final block, squashing Pennington to the ground.
Ngata's knockdown had a purpose.
"Honestly, I saw three guys," Ngata said. "I looked at the fastest guy that could catch Ed Reed. It was Ted Ginn."
That allowed Reed to stroll into the end zone for his 12th career touchdown and fourth of the season. But this was his first in three playoff games.
"He's maybe the best player in the game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
After scoring his touchdown, Reed put his thumbs together and palms up to make the "U" symbol as a nod to his University of Miami roots. "This is where it all started," he said.
But the score had more significance for the game.
Reed's touchdown staked the Ravens to a 10-3 lead. The Ravens never let the Dolphins close within a touchdown the rest of the game.
"It did set the tone," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "It put that team on their heels a little bit."
For once, the Ravens' coaching staff and fans weren't the ones worrying when Reed had the ball in his hands.
Reed has been known to take risks on his runbacks. A week ago, Reed pitched the ball twice, the last one hitting the ground for a fumble.
This time, Reed said he never thought about lateraling the ball.
Asked whether it was good to see what Reed can do when he doesn't pitch it, Harbaugh paused before grinning.
"It's good to see what Ed can do all the time," he said.
Known for not wanting to make comparisons, Harbaugh made an exception on Reed's long return.
"I probably haven't seen any better ones," Harbaugh said.
Reed's return officially went down as 64 yards, but he covered more ground than that. Weaving across the field, he probably ran more than 100 yards.
"I don't think I caught my breath until the third quarter," Reed said.
The third quarter happened to be when Reed influenced the game again.
When Miami looked to close a 20-3 margin in the third quarter, it was again Reed who stopped the Dolphins.
Backed up at the Ravens' 15-yard line, Reed picked off Pennington's throw over the middle. This interception was easier than the first one for Reed.
Pennington "was staring down [his receiver]. That drew me over there," Reed said.
Pennington acknowledged that Reed had baited him.
"He totally leaves his spot and shows up in a place you would never imagine him being in," Pennington said. "That's why he's special."
Miami's turnovers were a surprise because Pennington set a Dolphins record for lowest interception percentage. Replacing the Dolphins' "Wildcat" offense with a Wild-Chad one, the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year had seven interceptions in 16 regular-season games but threw four in three quarters yesterday.
It wasn't a surprise that half of the takeaways came from Reed. He has intercepted 10 passes over the past seven weeks.
"At this point, we kind of expect it. We're spoiled," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "You see him catch the ball and you say, 'Not again.'"
That's what the other team is saying, too.
When Reed makes multiple interceptions, it's a bad sign for the opposition. The Ravens are 9-0 in those games during Reed's career.
"The kid's a freak, and he's the greatest safety alive," Suggs said. "We know that whenever he sees a crease, he's going to hit it like an offensive player. When he gets the ball, he's going to go the distance with it."
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