Ride to Tampa bumpy, wild

Not without a hitch, Ravens win city over

Super Bowl Xxxv

Ravens Vs. Giants

January 22, 2001|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN COLUMNIST

The love affair between an old, historic NFL city and its new professional football team has been rekindled in the 2000 season.

An affection once reserved for the Baltimore Colts and such legends as John Unitas, Lenny Moore and John Mackey has grown to include the Ravens and their modern-day stars of Ray Lewis, Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson.

When the Ravens play in Super Bowl XXXV against the New York Giants on Sunday in Tampa, Fla., the cycle will have been completed. The Colts created memories in Baltimore from 1947 through 1983, and now the Ravens are forming their own bond in a community that has gone Ravens-crazy.

Purple-mania has arrived.

Local sporting goods stores are selling out of team merchandise. Area schools have had Ravens days. Purple lights shine throughout a city where the mayor has attended team practices during the playoffs. Young children paint their faces purple and black, and statues inside City Hall are clad in purple jerseys.

The boulevard on which the team's practice facility is located has been temporarily renamed Ravens Boulevard, and there aren't many conversations in bars where the talk doesn't turn to the Ravens.

"The response in this city to what we've done so far has been humongous," said Ravens owner Art Modell. "I've had many, many playoff games, four championships in Cleveland prior to this one, but nothing has turned a town on like we have witnessed in Baltimore. This city has been denied football for 13 years, and all their pent-up emotions were channeled toward the Eagles, Redskins, Jets, Giants and even Miami, where they tried to find a kindred spirit.

"When we came in here in the dark days in Memorial Stadium, we didn't do too much either, but at least they had something to hang on to," Modell said. "The attachment grew, the romance grew to where it is now a full-grown love affair. Every player, every coach, cannot get over the response given to them. It has been overwhelming."

It really is an amazing run to glory. There is hardly anyone, even the Ravens themselves, who believed they would play in Super Bowl XXXV. The most reasonable scenario was an outside chance at the playoffs, especially with the defending AFC Central champion Jacksonville Jaguars and defending AFC champion Tennessee Titans in the same division.

But this is a story about a team whose best player, middle linebacker Ray Lewis, was involved in a double-murder trial in May, and had to play five of its first seven games on the road.

The Ravens shuffled quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers during the regular season, a sure formula for disaster, and also endured five games without scoring a touchdown, losing three.

For an encore, they had to play successive road games against Tennessee in the AFC semifinals and the Oakland Raiders in the conference championship game.

Having faith

It was always an uphill battle, but it ended with a trip to the Super Bowl.

"Never at any point did I feel we were out of it," said Ravens president David Modell. "Faith is faith. You have to have it. It's not like a library book where you can turn it in at any time at your own convenience."

Coach Brian Billick said: "There are a lot of things in the game that tear at the heart and fabric of the team concept - salary cap, free agents and the media to name a few. What allows you to handle and sometimes overcome all of this is chemistry and character. We have both of those in abundance. We have enough to stare into the abyss and grow strong.

"We did it when we went through our three-game losing streak and our touchdown drought," he said. "We've won with shutouts, and we've won with great comebacks at the ends of games, especially against Jacksonville at home and Tennessee in November. We're ready for the Super Bowl and what it may bring."

Thank goodness for the Ravens' defense and Pro Bowl kicker Matt Stover.

Defense has been the team's most consistent weapon throughout the 2000 season. There will be debates for years about how this unit compares with other great defenses, such as those of the mid-1980s Chicago Bears and the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. But these facts can't be denied:

The Ravens set 16-game records in points, 165, and rushing yards, 970, allowed. They recorded four shutouts, one shy of the post-merger NFL record held by the 1976 Steelers. The Ravens finished first in the league in six defensive categories and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past 33 games.

And they have possibly the NFL's best player in Lewis, who was named the Associated Press' Defensive Player of the Year.

Blue-collar team

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