Ravens' magic is easier to enjoy than to figure out

January 30, 2001|By John Eisenberg

TAMPA, Fla. - Brian Billick spent Super Bowl week telling jokes about the size of his ego, but he was a portrait of humility after the Ravens' victory was complete Sunday night.

"By the end of this thing," the Ravens' head coach said, "I was just along for the ride."

It was a telling concession speech to the unfathomable, greater power that grabbed the Ravens and sent them hurtling to four playoff wins by a combined score of 95-23.

Whatever it was - and don't try to figure it out - it was a potent piece of football magic.

Come on. Let's face it. The Ravens were a good team during the regular season, winners of 12 of 16 games, but they didn't resemble the kind of team that might chew up everything in their path on the way to a Super Bowl victory. They were the No. 4 seed in the AFC's six-team playoff field, a team clearly on the rise but maybe a year away. Their offense was inconsistent and their defense let the Cardinals and Jets ring up 40 first downs in the final two regular-season games.

Once the playoffs began, however, everything changed. Immediately. Permanently. The offense produced more than enough big plays to win, and the defense, well, any first down generated against it was a victory worth noting. There weren't many.

Go figure: The Ravens, in just their first winning season, operated at a much higher level during the playoffs than they had at any point during the season.

Sure, they had been improving for a couple of months, since the end of the three-game losing streak and the five-game run without a touchdown, a pair of potentially catastrophic events that were survived only because of the team's impressive spirit of togetherness.

"This team stared at the abyss and came back," said Billick, who seldom lacks for dramatic effect.

But its steady arc of improvement gave way to a moon shot once the Super Bowl tournament kicked off. Out of nowhere, the Ravens suddenly were so good that only the Tennessee Titans could even stay on the field with them.

In hindsight, the Ravens' 24-10 win over the Titans in Nashville on Jan. 7 was the real Super Bowl, the matchup of the NFL's two best teams. The Titans actually drove the length of the field for a touchdown (!) in the first quarter, and they had chances to lead late in the game, chances that floated away with Al Del Greco's nightmare.

The Titans were for real, a genuine contender, a team that was capable of beating the Ravens, but just didn't. After that, everyone else was just a pretender.

"Once we won in Tennessee, we kind of looked at each other and said, `You know, it's downhill from here,' " Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer said.

The Raiders probably were the No. 3 team in the NFL's season-ending poll, a distance behind the Ravens and Titans, with the Broncos and Giants ranked Nos. 4 and 5 in some order.

In other words, the Ravens' Super Bowl assignment was to beat a team that was no better than the fourth- or fifth-best in the league.

No wonder they were so cocky during the week, stealing all the pre-game hype from the low-key, closed-mouth (boring) Giants.

"We were just confident, so confident," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said.

After beating the Titans on the road for the second time in two months and then going to Oakland for the AFC championship game and easily overcoming a crowd as riled up and intimidating as any you will ever see, the Giants were easy prey.

It was simple, in the end. The AFC was much tougher than the NFC, and not coincidentally, the AFC's best team was much tougher than the NFC's best team.

If you want to draw a comparison, the Ravens most closely resembled Jimmy Johnson's first championship team with the Dallas Cowboys, the strutting, irrepressible group that went on the road and beat San Francisco in the NFC title game, then crowed for two weeks about beating Buffalo before going out and winning Super Bowl XXVII by five touchdowns.

Like that team, the Ravens seemed to believe before the game that winning the Super Bowl was just their divine right. And like Johnson's team, the Ravens' superiority was so clear once the game began that the players eventually seemed almost less concerned about winning than about being the next in the line to make a big-time play everyone would be talking about.

For Billick to admit he was "just along for the ride" was quite an admission, but he is a knowing football man and he certainly recognized that some special forces were at work, taking the work-in-progress he had wrought and transforming it into a dominating Super Bowl champion.

Some of it can be explained. Billick made a key change at quarterback, whittled down the playbook and turned to the running game, eliminating mistakes from the offense. The defense, already superb, just kept improving. And the special teams, a weakness early in the season, suddenly jelled.

But if some of the Ravens' incredible journey can be explained, some can't be explained, either. They were a good team that suddenly just up and soared beyond all expectations, even their own. Winning the Super Bowl was easy, of all things. Billick, who certainly believes in himself, just gave in and let the current take him.

Don't ask. Don't try to make sense of it. You can't explain magic.

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