Facing the Saints in a cyberspace Super Bowl, the Ravens come away with an unreal victory

The Baltimore Sun

The world may be watching when the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears hook up tonight in the Super Bowl, but only because the football gods fumbled the matchup that everybody really wanted to see.

OK, not everybody, but everybody who counts. Ravens fans were geared up for glory, and the rest of the country (with a couple of notable metropolitan exceptions) wanted to see the New Orleans Saints complete their unlikely march to Miami.

Who would have gone home with the Lombardi Trophy? Who knows, but an Internet site called WhatIFSports.com has a computer program that allows fans to simulate a game between any team in the NFL as well as the other major college and professional sports.

So, sit back and enjoy the phony coverage of the Super Bowl between the Ravens and Saints, which kicked off under partly cloudy skies with a game-time temperature of 75 degrees (as projected by weather.com) and the Indianapolis Colts at home watching on television.

MIAMI --Ravens running back Jamal Lewis and cornerback Samari Rolle finished what quarterback Steve McNair had started.

Lewis scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 38-yard run with 44 seconds left in the Super Bowl and Rolle intercepted New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees three plays later to seal the Ravens' 31-24 victory over the Saints before 75,540 last night at Dolphin Stadium.

"Nobody gave us a chance," said coach Brian Billick, whose second NFL title came in a season that began with his future very much in doubt. "Nobody thought we would be here tonight, kissing this big, shiny trophy and getting fingerprints and smudges all over it. I'm going to make Jamal shower before he holds it again."

The celebration followed an efficient, if unspectacular, performance by McNair, who completed 11 of 27 passes for 116 yards but threw a pair of early touchdown passes that set the tone for a victory that probably didn't play as well around the country as it did in Baltimore.

The Saints became the new America's Team with an unlikely playoff run that lifted the spirits of the area that was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina more than a year ago. They won the NFC South with a 10-6 record and squeaked by the Chicago Bears in the NFC championship game when Bears quarterback Rex Grossman inexplicably bootlegged 35 yards into the wrong end zone for a safety late in the fourth quarter.

"They had a great run," McNair said, "but nobody thought we would be here, either. Nobody thought we could beat the Colts. Nobody thought we could beat the Patriots. Nobody thought we could beat the Saints."

Well, actually, the Ravens were favored in all three postseason games, but NFL rules require all championship teams to insist that they were spunky underdogs being constantly criticized and underestimated by the negative media.

McNair didn't put up big numbers, but he got the job done. Brees completed 22 of 32 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns, but he was intercepted three times (twice by Rolle) and sacked twice - once each by linebackers Ray Lewis and Adalius Thomas.

The league's top-ranked defense during the regular season also limited the Saints' backfield duo of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush to a combined 66 yards on 24 carries (a 2.8-yard average), and kicker Matt Stover rebounded from a rare blocked field-goal attempt to convert from 31, 20 and 23 yards.

Those contributions paved the way for the Ravens to capture their second championship in six years. They defeated the New York Giants in the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., in January 2001 and got back to the playoffs the next year, but were coming off two difficult seasons when McNair was acquired from the Tennessee Titans.

"Our goal was to win the Super Bowl and be the best team in the NFL," said Jamal Lewis, who was named the game's Most Valuable Player. "Now we are, and nobody can take this away from us ... not like Reggie Bush's college championship at USC, which somebody might take away from him after they finish that NCAA investigation."

Lewis was all smiles after a 20-carry, 163-yard performance that shattered the popular notion that the seventh-year running back's best days were behind him.

With Lewis leading the way, the Ravens rushed for 229 yards on 35 carries.

"He looked like the same old Jamal to me," left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said with a wide grin. "He took all of that trash [the media] was saying about him and used it as motivation. I kind of felt sorry for the Saints because it wasn't their fault. They didn't say that stuff about Jamal."

Lewis had grown weary of the constant speculation about his diminished role in the offense and his uncertain contract situation, so he took it out on one Saints tackler after another.

"If I had a choice, I would much rather have run over [Sun football columnist] Mike Preston on every play, but winning the Super Bowl was almost as much fun," he said.

Lewis' game-saving heroics occurred in a wild fourth quarter in which New Orleans overcame a 23-14 deficit on John Carney's 21-yard field goal and Brees' second touchdown strike to wide receiver Devery Henderson for a 24-23 lead with 1:38 left.

The Ravens moved 38 yards from their 24-yard line to the Saints' 38. On second-and-four, Lewis took a handoff from McNair, rumbled through a gaping hole created on the left side by Ogden and left guard Jason Brown, and followed more blocks by fullback Ovie Mughelli and wide receiver Derrick Mason before leaping into the end zone. A successful two-point conversion put the Ravens up by seven.

On the Saints' ensuing possession, Brees hit rookie wide receiver Marques Colston on a deep out pattern for 17 yards to their 48. After Brees scrambled for 1 yard and ran out of bounds, he tried to connect with Henderson on a fly pattern along the left sideline, but Rolle had other ideas.

He outleaped Henderson and came down with the ball at the Ravens' 20. He returned it 10 yards before getting clobbered from behind by Henderson, but the Ravens had the ball back and were able to run out the clock.

"During the season, I developed a revolutionary new coverage system where I would let the receiver get so far behind me that the quarterback would tire himself out trying to throw the ball that far," Rolle said, "but Rex [Ryan, defensive coordinator] thought it would be a good idea to stay with their guys today."

For Rolle, McNair and Mason, last night's win wiped away the painful memories of the January 2000 Super Bowl, when the three played for the Tennessee Titans and fell 1 yard short of the end zone on the final play in a 23-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams.

"I wasn't sure I'd ever get back to this stage, but now that I'm here, I may never leave," joked Mason, who clutched the Vince Lombardi Trophy for almost a minute during the trophy presentation before rushing back to the team hotel to put it on eBay. "This is truly the pinnacle of my football career, and I hope this feeling never goes away."

After the game, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome informed Billick that the team had decided to give him a contract extension, but - curiously - wouldn't tell him for how much or for how long.

"We like to keep that stuff in-house," Newsome said. "We don't like that kind of thing to become a distraction for Brian or the players, so we like to keep it secret so all the reporters will poke around behind our backs and speculate about it for weeks in the paper and on ESPN."

edward.lee@baltsun.com peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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