With this win, Ravens' season is a success

January 01, 2001|By John Eisenberg

THE RAVENS CAN'T lose now. Even if they do.

After hammering the Broncos yesterday to give Baltimore its first NFL playoff win since Richard Nixon was in the White House, the Ravens have officially reached the point where this season is a no-lose proposition.

No matter what happens next Sunday in Tennessee, or in any subsequent games, the Ravens have maxed out. Soared beyond the reach of all skepticism. Squeezed as much out of the 2000 season as even a reasonable optimist could have expected.

Yes, a 12-4 regular-season record and an inaugural trip to the playoffs were almost enough already for a franchise that hadn't fielded a winner since 1994 and a city that hadn't been host to an NFL playoff game since 1977, but make no mistake, a loss to the Broncos yesterday would have soured many of the good vibes. A bad slip at home on the Ravens' first venture onto the national stage would have shifted the focus to their weak schedule, to their youth, to their debatable worthiness as a playoff team - to what they weren't, as opposed to what they are.

There can be none of that talk now.

The Broncos came to town just 23 months removed from their second straight Super Bowl win, toting one of the league's best offenses and a head coach who almost always finds a way. They were a real challenge, a legitimate measuring stick.

The Ravens stuffed them. Planted them nose-first in the ground.

Left no doubt about which of these teams was better.

The Broncos' vaunted offense crossed the 50-yard line exactly one time in 60 minutes and failed to generate a touchdown in a game for the first time in Denver playoff history.

Sure, the swirling, windy conditions were part of the problem, obviously more damaging to the Broncos and coach Mike Shanahan's prolific passing offense than to the Ravens.

Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer called the conditions the worst he'd ever seen for passing, but he didn't have to pass much on a day when Ravens coach Brian Billick, bless him, stuck with the run, and rookie Jamal Lewis gained 110 yards. The Broncos never ran nearly that well, and quarterback Gus Frerotte's day was a lot rougher.

It also helped the Ravens that Frerotte played instead of Brian Griese, who was the Broncos' starter and the NFL's highest-rated quarterback before suffering a shoulder injury in November. Even though Griese re-injured his shoulder five plays into a comeback last week, the Ravens thought he would be sufficiently healed to play yesterday.

"I was shocked when it was Frerotte," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said.

Shocked and pleased, he could have said. Frerotte was a far lesser threat. A Vinny II, if you will, only without the strong arm.

The situation cried out for Shanahan to make a pitching change as Frerotte fired incompletions and the Broncos' season slipped away, but Griese's injury obviously was serious, because Shanahan never budged. Then around the middle of the third quarter, as a pall spread over the Broncos' bench, the reality seemed to sink in: Yes, in fact, John Elway had retired.

But while the wind and the Broncos' poor quarterbacking were factors, don't misunderstand: The Ravens earned this win in a big way.

"I don't think anyone expected this [blowout], really," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "I know I thought the matchup between their offense and our defense would be a wash, and it would come down to our offense against their defense. A close game, either way."

What happened?

"We have a good team," Sharpe said, "and we played a good game."

Sharpe pitched in with the game's key play - a deflected pass that bounced through the hands of Jamal Lewis and off Denver's Terrell Buckley before Sharpe corralled it and raced 58 yards for a touchdown to give the Ravens a 14-3 lead in the second quarter.

Call it the Immaculate Deflection, the break from which the Broncos never recovered.

"We worked hard on that play," Billick said with a smile.

But although luck was a factor there, the Ravens have become nothing if not expert in the art of the big play, the game-breaker. They made a handful against the Jets and numerous others earlier in the season. Now this one, bound for Baltimore football lore.

The play sent the Ravens on their way to their 13th win of the season and a date with the Titans next week. Twenty-three teams are done for the year, eight left in the Super Bowl tournament. The Ravens are one of the eight. Happy New Year, Baltimore.

The going gets tougher now, of course. The Ravens have to win again in Tennessee and then beat Oakland or Miami on the road to get to the Super Bowl.

"That's going to be tough to do," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. "This one win is really nice and we're going to enjoy it, but we didn't play just to get this far and be satisfied. We have to keep going."

But after yesterday's win, let there be no doubt about where they stand for this season. They have eaten their cake. Finished it. Earned a home playoff game and won it convincingly.

Stepped onto the national stage and proved themselves for real.

From now on, whatever they eat is icing.

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