The football world was supposed to find out the extent of the Ravens' historic salary cap dismantling last night.
Instead, the Ravens ripped apart the previously unbeaten Denver Broncos, 34-23, seizing the national spotlight and commanding new respect in wrapping up an unpredictable first month of the NFL season.
Turning their trash-talk rhetoric into reality, the Ravens (1-2) earned their first victory, strutted within a half game of the AFC North-leading Cleveland Browns and will play for the division lead Sunday night in Cleveland. The Broncos (3-1) imploded with untimely penalties and became the fifth previously undefeated team to fall in Week 4.
The Ravens' offense, which hadn't scored in 123 1/2 minutes, struck for 31 points in the second quarter.
Tight end Todd Heap, who had been averaging 5 yards per reception, overshadowed his mentor, Shannon Sharpe, with several acrobatic catches and finished with five receptions for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
And the Ravens' special teams and defense, previously devoid of playmakers, proved to be game-breakers with a 108-yard touchdown return by Chris McAlister, a blocked punt by Ed Reed and three interceptions.
McAlister's return of a missed field goal capped the highest-scoring quarter in franchise history and staked the Ravens to a 31-3 halftime lead. The Ravens struggled a bit in the second half but never let their lead dwindle below 11 points, as Denver closed the game with three unanswered touchdowns.
"I told the team just before we came out to follow me," inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Match my passion. Match my energy."
The Ravens started in a familiar hole, falling behind 3-0 after the first quarter. It was the eighth straight quarter in which they had trailed, dating to the second quarter of the season opener.
Denver was jump-started by a 24-yard punt return by Deltha O'Neal, setting up the Broncos at the Ravens' 43-yard line. Managing just 22 yards on eight plays, Denver settled for Jason Elam's 40-yard field goal with 5:45 left in the first quarter.
Two series later, the Ravens took advantage of a punt return of their own, when Chris McAlister broke a 15-yard runback to the Broncos' 46-yard line. After the scoreless drought reached eight quarters, the Ravens went on the attack at the beginning of the second quarter.
On third-and-one at the Denver 23, Ravens quarterback Chris Redman made a play-action fake and lofted a toss to tight end Todd Heap in the end zone. With Broncos safety Kenoy Kennedy turned around, Heap leaped over him and hauled in the touchdown pass 45 seconds into the second quarter.
"The pass was just how I like it - high and soft," Heap said. "It was a perfect pass."
That ended the team's scoreless streak at 22 series and put the Ravens in an unusual position with a 7-3 lead. Before that touchdown, the Ravens had led for only two minutes, seven seconds this season.
The Ravens tightened control of the momentum with the first big play by their first-round draft pick, Ed Reed. Flying off the edge, Reed blocked Tom Rouen's punt and gave the Ravens' possession at Denver's 13-yard line.
After a holding penalty pushed the Ravens out of the red zone, Redman found Heap over the middle for a 16-yard gain to put them right back in it. Three plays later, Jamal Lewis took a pitch left and finished off his 2-yard touchdown run by pushing the ball across the goal line in his outstretched right hand.
The two touchdowns in less than a four-minute span staked the Ravens to a 14-3 advantage with 10:25 left in the first half.
While the Ravens were overflowing with confidence, the Broncos were falling apart.
After Denver receiver Ashley Lelie dropped a pass inside the Ravens' 5 to end another drive, the Ravens were helped by the Broncos' temper. Five Denver penalties - ranging from unsportsmanlike conduct to taunting to a late hit - accounted for 51 yards of the Ravens' 81-yard scoring drive.
The Ravens capped that flagged-filled possession with a 23-yard field goal by Matt Stover, pushing the margin to 17-3 with 1:57 remaining in the second quarter.
On the second play of Denver's next possession, Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis popped running back Mike Anderson in the back and caught a throw that caromed off Anderson. Lewis' interception was the Ravens' first turnover of the season, but the heroics would be left to Heap.
After his one-handed, 33-yard catch in double coverage, Heap ended the drive by making a midair adjustment on a fade pattern and pulling in a 3-yard touchdown catch. Heap accounted for all 36 yards in that possession and lifted the Ravens to a 24-3 lead.
Denver tried to slow the disastrous stretch with a 57-yard field-goal try by Elam with one second left before halftime. The attempt fell short and into the hands of McAlister 8 yards into the end zone.