Baltimore Sun

Big D runs into bigger 'D'

The most defiant defense in the NFL can't say the P-word, but it can use the S-word.

And the Ravens speak the language of shutouts eloquently.

Ravaging a once-proud Dallas Cowboys' offense, 27-0, before 69,416 at PSINet Stadium, the Ravens' defense yesterday climbed another rung on a ladder only a few have dared to scale.

Their fourth shutout of the regular season is the second-most in the NFL's Super Bowl era, one behind the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Their eighth win of the season - tying the franchise high - leaves them positioned well for the stretch run to the postseason. Indeed, if the playoffs started today, the 8-4 Ravens would claim the AFC's top wild-card seed and Baltimore's first home playoff game since 1977.

"For us to win in the dominating fashion we did says something about us," said coach Brian Billick, who last week banned all discussion within Ravens ranks about the playoffs.

"This is a special group, and they have earned the right to talk about shutouts."

The domination was so complete, the game was never in doubt once the Ravens opened a 17-0 first-half lead.

It was so thorough that rookie running back Jamal Lewis had his third 100-yard game of the season with four minutes left in the first half.

It was so convincing on national TV that few teams will relish a postseason matchup against this defense.

"It was a great statement to blank the Cowboys like we did," said linebacker Jamie Sharper. "It shows we're ready for all comers, that we can beat anybody on a given day, that we can dominate any team."

The offense rolled up a franchise-record 250 rushing yards - 187 by Lewis in a powerful performance - and the defense allowed Dallas to cross midfield just three times.

The Cowboys (4-7) never got any closer to the goal line than the Baltimore 28-yard line. That third-quarter opportunity dissolved, however, when rookie kicker Tim Seder was wide right and short on a 46-yard field-goal attempt.

Outgained 479-192 in total yards, the Cowboys suffered their first shutout since Sept. 15, 1991, a 24-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

"They're an awfully good group," Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said, "but I don't think that anybody is so good in this league that you shouldn't be able to go down and score some points. So that's a reflection on the way we played as well."

The Ravens are good enough to contemplate breaking the Steelers' post-merger record of five shutouts. If they can't talk about the playoffs, they are more than willing to give a discourse on defense.

"Now it's in reach," said middle linebacker Ray Lewis on the possibility of six shutouts. "Now we go for it. We can taste it, smell it. So why not go for it?"

"That's a goal every week, a realistic goal every week," said linebacker Peter Boulware. "We'll definitely shoot for it the record. But our first thing is the win."

The Ravens pounded the Cowboys at the line of scrimmage. First they took away the run, then they took away hope.

"The key today was to play physical gap control, and play hard," said defensive tackle Sam Adams. "Play until you're tired and exhausted, until you have to drop."

It's a defense that prides itself on going the extra mile.

"We have two things you can't coach," said defensive end Rob Burnett. "Attitude and effort. Our guys have an attitude and they give 100 percent. We answered the call today. That was the best offensive line we've faced this year."

Although defensive end Michael McCrary got the Ravens' only sack, they harassed Aikman into three interceptions. Safety Rod Woodson got his 58th career theft in the second quarter and it led to a touchdown. Safety Corey Harris got another second-quarter pick, and Lewis had a fourth-quarter interception on a pass tipped by Burnett.

For the third straight week, the offense made it a collaborative effort. Jamal Lewis delivered the second-best rushing performance in franchise history (Priest Holmes rushed for 227 yards at Cincinnati in 1998), and quarterback Trent Dilfer completed 18 of 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns.

Dilfer's 40-yard touchdown strike to split end Qadry Ismail was the Ravens' first touchdown on their opening possession this season. His 59-yard scoring pass to tight end Shannon Sharpe in the second quarter - after Woodson's interception - gave the defense more than enough room to work.

Interestingly, Dilfer has played with two of the league's top defenses of this era. Last season he played with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"This defense is playing better, but it's very similar in that they're both relentless," he said. "They'll hit you until you want to give up. This defense is more big-play oriented.

"I have a great deal of respect for the defense in Tampa Bay. Those guys saved my butt a million times, and I appreciate them deeply. But with four shutouts, you've got to give the edge to Baltimore."