The Ravens claimed their place in history last night with one final dissertation on great defense. A team that swaggered into Super Bowl XXXV delivered on its sound and fury of the past week with a 34-7 demolition of the New York Giants before 71,921 at Raymond James Stadium.
It was the crowning glory, and defining moment, of a season that produced Baltimore's first Super Bowl championship in 30 years, since the Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, in Super Bowl V in 1971.
Collecting four interceptions against overmatched quarterback Kerry Collins, the wild-card Ravens (16-4) completed the improbable turnaround from perennial loser to Super Bowl champion in only coach Brian Billick's second season.
Their 11th straight victory followed a formula that proved unbeatable down the stretch: suffocating defense, opportunistic special teams and a timely play on offense.
They got a 38-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Trent Dilfer to Brandon Stokley for the early lead, an 84-yard kickoff return for a clinching touchdown, and an MVP performance from team leader and middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
Lewis had five tackles and deflected four passes to become the seventh defensive player in the history of the Super Bowl -- and first middle linebacker -- to win the Pete Rozelle Award as MVP.
"It was amazing the way we came out," Lewis said. "I mean, it was incredible to see the way we came out and played as a team. This defense has been doing this all year, and never, never got the credit.
"This win is something they can't take away from us. We are the best ever, the best ever right now."
The triumph completed Lewis' journey back from infamy. After last season's Super Bowl in Atlanta, he was charged in a double murder and had to undergo a high-profile trial. Even after the charges were dropped in a plea bargain agreement in exchange for an obstruction of justice misdemeanor charge, Lewis had the cloud of suspicion over him.
Yesterday, Lewis dominated play in the first half when the Ravens grabbed a 10-0 lead they would not relinquish.
"He has a way of always setting the tone," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who will interview in Buffalo today and Cleveland tomorrow for vacant head coaching jobs.
"He sets the tone when he comes out of that tunnel. He's been that way from the very first day he walked into that building. He's set the tone for this organization. He's a quality person, a quality player, and you see everyone feed off of it."
The Ravens' defense backed up a week of bravado that had several players calling for a shutout and their rightful place among the best defenses in NFL history.
The Ravens didn't get the shutout -- New York's Ron Dixon returned a kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown in the third quarter -- even though they deserved one.
Baltimore's defense allowed the Giants just 33 total yards in the second half, and 152 for the game. The Giants were only 2-for-14 on third down.
In their four-game Super Bowl run, the Ravens' defense gave up just one touchdown, and the team outscored its opponents by a combined 95-23.
"This is the best defense ever to play the game," said defensive tackle Tony Siragusa.
The Ravens had a field day at Collins' expense. A Ray Lewis deflection turned into an interception by linebacker Jamie Sharper in the second quarter. Cornerback Chris McAlister snuffed the Giants' best scoring threat with an interception at the Ravens' 1-yard line at the end of the first half.
Safety Kim Herring had a third-quarter interception, and when cornerback Duane Starks added a fourth, the game turned decisively.
Starks jumped in front of intended receiver Amani Toomer to steal a Collins' pass, and then ran untouched to the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown with 3:49 left in the third quarter.
Collins completed 15 of 39 passes for 112 yards, and tied a Super Bowl record with his four interceptions.
He was asked if he had ever seen a better defense.
"No, probably not," Collins said. "This is a good defense. They have good players and they're coached very well.
"That's one of the things that jump out, just how well-coached they are, and well-disciplined they are. They play together very well. They completely took me out of my rhythm. Everything I tried to get going always seemed to end up in a bad stop."
Starks said he knew the route was coming from studying video of Collins.
"I studied his three-step drop," he said. "When he gave me that little extra hop, I knew he was going to throw the ball. I had a positive read, I knew I had the upper hand on that three-step read."
In the space of 36 seconds and 21 points -- starting with that interception -- the Ravens lost their shutout, but put the game away.
Dixon returned the ensuing kickoff for New York's only touchdown of the night. Cornell Brown was the only player who got a hand on Dixon, who outran kicker Matt Stover at midfield.
At 17-7, the Giants had hope.
But not for long.
Jermaine Lewis returned the next kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown. They were the first back-to-back kickoff return touchdowns in Super Bowl history.
Lewis got big blocks from Corey Harris and Sam Gash to go down the right sideline.
The Ravens' offense contributed a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that covered 38 yards and ended with a 3-yard run by Jamal Lewis.
Stover kicked field goals of 47 and 34 yards, and was wide left on a 41-yard try in the third quarter.
Dilfer completed 12 of 25 passes for 153 yards and no turnovers, although he had one interception returned for a touchdown that was wiped out by a penalty call against the Giants.
His 38-yard strike to Stokley in the first quarter was on a perfectly thrown pass.
"We knew if we got the lead, it was going to be a hard day for them," Dilfer said.
"We have the best defense in the history of the universe. And it's fine that some of these old coaches and old players want to argue for their [defenses]. They should.
"But this is just proof. Our defense has proven it time after time after time. We're a great football team because we play to our strengths."
The victory was especially rewarding for Dilfer because he spent six years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before joining the Ravens last off-season as a free agent.
It was also the third Super Bowl victory in four years for tight end Shannon Sharpe, another off-season free-agent acquisition.
"This one is incredible because nobody thought that we could do it," Sharpe said.
"Nobody picked us to get this far. We came out of nowhere. The guys in the locker room believed we could do it. I don't think many people thought we could even get it done today.
"My hat is off to our defense. What a job they did today."