OAKLAND, Calif. - Before yesterday's game, Shannon Sharpe told Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer to look into his eyes, then promised him a big play.
The veteran tight end delivered on cue - again.
Sharpe took a short pass on a quick slant route and ran 96 yards for the only touchdown in the Ravens' 16-3 AFC championship victory over the Oakland Raiders. It staked the Ravens to a 7-0 lead in the second quarter and established an NFL record for the longest pass in league playoff history.
Game-turning plays have become sort of a routine for Sharpe in the playoffs.
In three games this season, he has caught five passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. That's a 45-yard average per reception.
"When you get into the playoffs, your big-time players have to make plays," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That's exactly what they are there to do. This is where you better show up or you don't have a chance of advancing."
The Ravens advanced yesterday on a simple play called Rip Double Slant. On a third-and-18 at their 4-yard line, the Ravens were looking for a first down but took advantage of a Raiders defense that blitzed as well as latched down on the outside receivers.
Sharpe lined up in the slot against single coverage and beat Raiders safety Marquez Pope on an immediate cut over the middle. After the catch, Sharpe easily broke through Pope's arm tackle and picked up a key backside block by receiver Brandon Stokley.
"When Marquez missed the tackle, it was off to the races," Sharpe said. "It was the right call against the right defense."
Said Dilfer: "I like any safety on Shannon Sharpe, and I was actually supposed to work the other way. He made a break and we hit it. He just did the rest."
Sharpe rambled the remaining 80 yards untouched, but still had to avoid having too much help. Ravens receiver Patrick Johnson trailed Sharpe, trying to stave off three fast-closing Raiders while nearly tripping Sharpe twice in the process.
Once in the end zone, Sharpe faced the infamous Black Hole section and extended his arms. He felt a beer thrown on him yet noticed an eerie silence.
"We had to take the crowd out of it," Sharpe said. "I got so sick of hearing about the Black Hole. So when we scored that touchdown, I just took a shovel and covered up the Hole."
It was a difficult weekend for Sharpe. He didn't fly with the team on Friday in order to attend a funeral in Denver for Sharon Parish, a longtime friend.
"I just talked to her Tuesday night and Thursday she's in a coma," Sharpe said. "You know you're going to die, but you never expect it."
But Sharpe never lost his focus. He just continued his run of perfect timing.
In the wild-card victory over Denver, Sharpe pulled down a twice-deflected pass and scored a 58-yard touchdown. Last week in the divisional playoff win at Tennessee, he produced a 56-yard catch to the 1-yard line, setting up the Ravens' only touchdown of the game.
It's an extraordinary change for Sharpe, who had only one catch of more than 50 yards during the regular season.
But in the postseason, Sharpe has lived up to one goal.
"In the playoffs," Sharpe said, "it's make one play a game."
Longest playoff TD receptions
Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe set an NFL playoff record with his 96-yard touchdown catch from Trent Dilfer yesterday:
Yds. Player, Team ................... Year ........ Game ........ Opponent
96 Shannon Sharpe, Ravens ..........2001 .......AFC champ. ....Oakland
94 Alvin Harper, Dallas ...............1994 ......NFC divisional ...Green Bay
93 Elbert Dubenion, Buffalo ..........1963 ......AFC divisional ...Boston
88 Billy Cannon, Houston ..............1960 .....AFC playoff...L.A. Chargers