The Ravens marched into the playoffs as much on memory as they did on might.
Dusting off a dominant yet familiar formula, the defending Super Bowl champions clinched the league's final playoff spot by hammering the reeling Minnesota Vikings, 19-3, last night before 69,465 at PSINet Stadium in this city's first Monday Night Football game in more than two decades.
Behind an unrelenting defense, a stout running game and the reliable leg of kicker Matt Stover, the Ravens (10-6) earned the AFC's fifth seed and will begin their title defense at the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. Minnesota (5-11), which went winless on the road this season, showed little fight three days after coach Dennis Green stepped down.
Reminiscent of last year, the Ravens' suffocating defense controlled the game with four turnovers and sealed a trip to the postseason. Peter Boulware's AFC-leading 15th sack on quarterback Spergon Wynn led to an 8-yard fumble return for a touchdown by linebacker Jamie Sharper with 1:37 left in the game.
With an offensive line opening gaping holes, the Ravens relied on a running back by committee to churn out a season-high 212 rushing yards and control the clock for 33 of the game's 60 minutes. The resurgence of 12-year back Terry Allen continued as he gained a season-best 133 yards. Elvis Grbac completed 10 of 27 passes for 160 yards, but just as importantly, threw no interceptions.
However, the Ravens repeatedly stalled in the red zone, coming away without a touchdown despite seven runs inside the Vikings' 4-yard line. The sure-footed Stover stepped up to provide the points, kicking field goals of 21, 20, 38 and 20 yards to bounce the Seattle Seahawks and former quarterback Trent Dilfer out for that last playoff bid.
The first half resembled a Ravens' performance from a year ago as they relied on an opportunistic defense and Stover to crawl out to a 9-3 lead.
Minnesota, however, struck first with help from the Ravens and some trickery.
An 11-yard shank off the side of Ravens punter Kyle Richardson's right foot set up the Vikings at their 38-yard line and a perfect pass from receiver Randy Moss catapulted them into Ravens' territory for the first time of the night. Off an end-around, Moss hit fellow receiver Cris Carter in stride 29 yards downfield to the Ravens' 23.
After a 15-yard catch by Carter - third-string quarterback Spergon Wynn's only completion of the first quarter - Minnesota could only manage 1 yard in three tries inside the Ravens' 8. The Ravens didn't allow a touchdown in the opening quarter for the 10th straight game, but Gary Anderson's 26-yard field goal put the Vikings ahead, 3-0, with 5:50 left.
The Ravens immediately answered with a drive that was jumpstarted by Qadry Ismail's 17th reception of 20 yards or more this season and was sustained by their ground game. Following Ismail's third-down conversion, the Ravens ran the ball seven straight times, rolling down to the Minnesota 3.
But Jason Brookins was stopped for no gain on a third-and-one and the Ravens decided to play it safe. Stover kicked a 21-yard field goal to begin the second quarter, tying the game at 3.
Three minutes later, the Ravens' defense delivered a striking blow. Closing quickly on a short catch by Carter, Ravens cornerback Duane Starks punched the ball out with his right hand and safety Rod Woodson recovered at the Vikings' 45-yard line.
Keeping to their deliberate game plan, the Ravens ran five times in a row to get deep inside Minnesota territory where they again stalled. On a red-zone series extended by a pass interference penalty, the Ravens were denied on six tries inside the Vikings' 3.
Brookins was stopped on two runs from the 1, and the Ravens had to settle for a 20-yard field goal from Stover to go ahead, 6-3, with 6:29 remaining in the second quarter.
"You don't get that many shots," Ravens coach Brian Billick said, "and you've got to punch it in somehow."
An overmatched Wynn was 13-for-29 for 86 yards and threw two interceptions for Minnesota.
The Ravens avoided another mistake from their special teams because their defense again rose to the occasion.
With 1:10 left in the first half, Ravens long-snapper Dale Hellestrae, who was signed on Thursday to replace injured Joe Maese, made his third straight low delivery to Richardson. Unable to control the ball, Richardson was forced to fall on the ball at the Ravens' 10.
One play later, Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister made a one-handed interception in the end zone despite Moss hanging over his back.
"It looked like they were throwing a fade route to the back of the end zone and I had position on Randy the entire time," McAlister said of his first interception of the season. "I just had a feeling it was coming to him. With the position I had, no matter where he threw it, it was mine."
Striking quickly, Brandon Stokley's career-long 46-yard reception led to Stover's 38-yard field goal as the first half ended.
Converting two turnovers into field goals, the Ravens went into halftime with a 9-3 advantage. The Ravens' defense held the Vikings to 101 yards of total offense in the first half.
The third quarter had a similar feel for the Ravens. Their defense continued to stonewall Minnesota and their offense churned out yards only to leave with a field goal.
In the only productive offensive series by either team, the Ravens moved 51 yards on two receptions by tight end Shannon Sharpe. Once inside the red zone, the frustration continued for the Ravens.
On a third-and-one at the Minnesota 2, Allen was halted for no gain. It was the Ravens ' seventh play inside the Vikings' 3-yard line but failed to crack the goal line every time.
Stover's 20-yard field goal capped the Ravens' third scoring drive of five minutes or longer, staking them to a 12-3 lead with 3:52 left in the third quarter.