On a weekend when AFC playoff teams were riddled by upsets, the Ravens proved bulletproof in a desert ambush.
They survived a questionable replay reversal yesterday, got two huge turnovers by linebacker Jamie Sharper and just enough offense to squeeze past the gritty Arizona Cardinals, 13-7, before a sparse crowd of 37,452 at Sun Devil Stadium.When the smoke of Week 16 cleared, the Ravens (11-4) had assured themselves of no worse than a home game in the wild-card round. Beyond that, the scenario gets murky.
But if the Ravens beat the New York Jets next week at home, and the Tennessee Titans lose to the Dallas Cowboys the following Monday night, they would gain the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs by virtue of tiebreakers over both the Titans and the Oakland Raiders.
Suddenly, the Ravens have the NFL's longest winning streak (six games), thanks to Denver's 20-7 loss at Kansas City yesterday. Clinching the first home playoff game for a Baltimore team since 1977 was the reward.
"It's big," said quarterback Trent Dilfer. "You see what can happen when you go on the road. At home, you can get your guns blazing.
"That doesn't mean we can't win on the road. We've done it. But I'd be lying if I said we didn't prefer to play at home."
The Ravens were living dangerously in Arizona. The 3-12 Cardinals finished with more first downs (18-14) and more total yards (309-214) than Baltimore, and had three possessions in the red zone.
When quarterback Jake Plummer (23-for-43 for 266 yards) teamed with wide receiver Frank Sanders for a 27-yard touchdown five minutes into the second half, the Ravens trailed (7-3) for the first time in 21 quarters.
The touchdown came when safety Rod Woodson went for an interception and cornerback Chris McAlister missed a diving leg tackle as Sanders pulled into the open field.
The Ravens answered in a style that has become commonplace - with huge plays on defense. There were two sacks by defensive end Rob Burnett, a spectacular stuff on a fourth-and-one quarterback sneak by defensive tackle Sam Adams and, for a finishing touch, a dramatic fourth-down knockdown of Plummer's pass by middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who also had 13 tackles.
Turnovers were the theme in this win, though.
Two minutes after Arizona's touchdown, Sharper delivered the first of his two game-changing plays. After the Ravens' offense had gone three-plays-and-out, Sharper intercepted Plummer's second pass, literally pulling it out of tight end Chris Gedney's hands.
He lumbered 45 yards down the field to the Arizona 6, picking up a key block from McAlister along the way. "I read his route and broke on it," Sharper said.
On third-and-goal, running back Jamal Lewis hurdled into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown, following center Jeff Mitchell and fullback Sam Gash for a 10-7 lead. That run and a pair of 42-yard field goals by Matt Stover accounted for all of Baltimore's scoring.
Lewis finished with 126 rushing yards to become the 14th rookie to gain 1,300 rushing yards. He also had a fourth-quarter fumble on a swing pass that looked crucial until Sharper forced his fifth fumble of the season one play later.
Lewis' fumble gave Arizona possession on the Ravens' 15 with 12:20 left in the game.
Disaster loomed when tight end Terry Hardy caught a short pass from Plummer and bolted toward the end zone. At the 5, Sharper caught him from behind and deftly knocked the ball out with a right-hand swipe. Woodson recovered in a mad scramble at the 5.
"He didn't see me coming from the back side," Sharper said. "That's something we work on in practice every day."
The defense came up with four turnovers on the day. Woodson's punishing hit on Michael Pittman at the Baltimore 7 in the first quarter knocked the ball loose and the Arizona running back out of the game with a concussion. The fumble was recovered by Lewis.
Cornerback Duane Starks owned the other turnover, returning a second-quarter interception 30 yards.
The Cardinals had one last chance to win, however. They got the ball at their own 40 with 7:46 left. Rookie running back Thomas Jones (39 rushing yards, 41 receiving yards) got the ball on seven of nine plays as they drove to the 12-yard line.
A false start penalty pushed the Cardinals back to the 17.
Then, with 2:32 left and Plummer in the pocket, linebacker Peter Boulware knocked the ball loose on an apparent fumble that was recovered by Woodson.
But the Cardinals issued a replay challenge, and won when it was ruled that Plummer had attempted a shovel pass.
"I thought it was bad," Boulware said of the call. "[The official] said the quarterback had his arm going forward, but I think I knocked it out."
Woodson concurred, but added the caveat.
"You have to live with rough calls," he said. "You have to overcome it. We had to make two more plays on defense, and we did that."
On third-and-10 from the Baltimore 17, safety Corey Harris stopped Jones for a 5-yard gain on a dump pass over the middle. On fourth down, Lewis rejected a quick slant pass from Plummer and danced off the field.
"I just made a play," Lewis said. "He has been throwing the ball quick all game, and I just played off him."
Said Adams: "Things were hairy, but we buckled down and came out with a win. It's not always as pretty as you'd like."
Especially on offense, where Dilfer threw for just 70 yards and had one critical interception in the end zone after Starks' interception gave the Ravens a first down at the Cardinals' 5.
"You don't fear an opponent, [but] you respect them," said tight end Shannon Sharpe, open in the end zone on the interception. "I don't think we showed them the respect they should have gotten."