In a postseason defined by home-turf dominance, the Ravens raided Pro Player Stadium in a familiar, battle-tested vehicle.
Unleashing a smash-mouth running game to complement a menacing defense, the Ravens notched the first road win of these playoffs by stomping the Miami Dolphins, 20-3, yesterday in an AFC wild-card game.The defending champions' traveling show featured two length-of-the-field touchdown drives - their longest ones of the season - and proclaimed them as a team in for the distance. Final destination: a return trip to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
"When we play the way we're capable of anywhere in the continental United States," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said, "I believe we have the best football team in America."
In becoming the first team in NFL history to win its first five playoff games, the Ravens (11-6) gained steam in their campaign to become the third Super Bowl champion to repeat over the past two decades.
The journey winds through Heinz Field, where they'll renew a fierce division feud with the top-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers in a second-round playoff game Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Although the bitter rivals split the season series, the Ravens are the only visiting team to win at Heinz in its inaugural season.
"They want to see us, we want to see them," tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "That's the way it's going to be."
Said linebacker Jamie Sharper: "We've been looking for them in these playoffs."
As the first fifth seed to win in five seasons, the Ravens dominated under the South Florida sun by bringing the defensive heat.
The Ravens pummeled Miami running back Lamar Smith (6 yards on six carries) and harried quarterback Jay Fiedler (15-for-28 passing for 122 yards), forcing three turnovers in the process. They surrendered only 151 yards and nine first downs and would have recorded a shutout if not for Jermaine Lewis' fumble of the opening kickoff.
Dating back to last season's playoffs, this defense has not allowed a touchdown in its past 54 postseason drives.
"We perform at the dance," defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said. "We don't go there and stand against the wall, looking for chicks. We grab them by the arm and we dance. We're not letting up. We're not giving anybody anything."
The defense wasn't the only side providing punch.
The Ravens continually stuffed the ball down the throat of the league's fifth-ranked defense, rushing on 50 of 69 plays to a season-high 226 yards on the ground. That ball-control attack allowed the Ravens to hold the ball for almost 16 more minutes than Miami as Terry Allen slashed through the line 25 times for 109 yards and a score.
"I didn't want to be the reason we didn't win," said Allen, a 12-year veteran making perhaps his last postseason drive.
Miami (11-6), which had won seven of its eight regular-season home games, received its first and only break when Lewis coughed up the opening kickoff at the Ravens' 24. The Ravens' defense buckled down, budging only 9 yards and the Dolphins had to settle for a 33-yard field goal.
The Ravens allowed the Dolphins inside their 40 only once the rest of the game.
Three series later, the Ravens marched 90 yards on 17 plays, taking the lead for good 1:26 into the second quarter on a 4-yard run by Allen. That grind-it-out series included four third-down conversions and finished with 11 out of the last 12 plays being runs.
"It was very old school," Ogden said. "Whoever was going to hit the hardest was going to win. Miami played hard, but I think we had that Super Bowl pride on our mind. We wanted to defend our title so we came out and made a statement."
The Ravens delivered the pivotal blow midway through the third quarter with a daring play-call and a calculated read.
On a series that began with them backed up at their 1, the Ravens moved out to their 10-yard line on two Allen runs and then took their biggest gamble on third-and-one. Capitalizing on a Miami blitz, Ravens receiver Travis Taylor beat cornerback Patrick Surtain one-on-one down the right sideline and made a 45-yard, over-the-shoulder catch off a perfectly thrown pass from Elvis Grbac.
"It was real gutsy," Taylor said of the play, called by offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. "If our defense hadn't been playing so well, we probably would have run the ball."
The Ravens followed that by running the ball six straight times and moved to the Dolphins' 4 after a 7-yard reception by Obafemi Ayanbadejo.
On third-and-goal, Taylor improvised a fade route to the corner when he noticed Surtain on his outside shoulder. Grbac hit Taylor for a 4-yard touchdown, increasing the Ravens' lead to 14-3 with 1:20 left in the third quarter.
"Once he jumped inside, I knew I had to put a little less air in it and kind of drive the ball," said Grbac, the much-maligned quarterback who was 12-for-18 for 133 yards in winning his first playoff game of his nine-year career. "It was the back-breaker."
On Miami's first drive of the fourth quarter, Peter Boulware sealed the victory by forcing a fumble at the Dolphins' 42 on a sack of Fiedler. The Ravens converted the turnover into a 35-yard field goal by Matt Stover, giving them a 17-3 advantage with 11:05 left.
"That slammed it shut," said Boulware, the AFC's sack leader. "It said that it's over."
The Dolphins, too, followed their playoff past. They are the only team to reach the playoffs each of the past five years, but they've made an early exit every time by a combined score of 164-16.
"We were just unable to get any confidence as the game went on," Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We are obviously a much better team than the way we played."
For the Ravens, their road trip continues to the Steel City, where they'll test their championship mettle.
"Everybody says they're the best team," Sharper said. "We'll see. If The Bus [ Jerome Bettis] is smart, he won't play."
Said Boulware: "I think the Steelers are the best team in the league right now. This game is the Super Bowl to me."