FOXBOROUGH, MASS. Clearly, this was the Ravens performance everyone has been waiting to see - an efficient, physical, dominating game against a very good team in a very hostile environment.
They can say it's just another game ... just another stop on a road that could lead to Miami. But their 33-14 victory over the New England Patriots was so much more than that, for so many reasons.
Why else would John Harbaugh get so caught up in the moment that he took half of a Cal Ripken victory lap at the end, high-fiving the Ravens fans who ringed the field while what was left of the Patriots faithful trudged out of chilly Gillette Stadium to find something else cold to drown their sorrows?
"I was surprised there were that many Ravens fans," Harbaugh said. "There were thousands."
And there were so many more at home enjoying a rare big game that allowed them to exhale before the final minutes of the fourth quarter, then ponder the prospect of another big, emotional game Saturday night at Indianapolis.
Harbaugh, however, wasn't quite ready to do that yet.
"We're looking forward to it," he said. "It's Saturday night; we'll be there on time."
Interesting choice of words, considering that if you didn't get to the stadium or in front of your television on time Sunday, you missed a lot of the breakout performance that basically broke the spirit of a Patriots team that has gotten pretty comfortable in playoff situations like this.
Ray Rice took a handoff from quarterback Joe Flacco on the game's first play and busted the line for an electric 83-yard touchdown run that left the sellout crowd in a state of stunned silence. Patriots fans would never get a chance to catch their breath as the Ravens took advantage of a string of turnovers to score 24 unanswered points in the first quarter.
Finally, a game that didn't test your soul. Finally, the Ravens' first-ever victory over the Patriots after five defeats. Amazingly, the Patriots' first-ever playoff loss at Gillette Stadium.
"We'll always remember this one," said Rice, who ran 159 yards on 22 carries. "It's hard to win on the road, especially here."
For once, it was the golden boy, Tom Brady, who had to deliver the post-game laments after he was roughed up early and often by a tough and opportunistic Ravens defense.
"It's going to make for a very long offseason," he said, "and it should be."
No one knows what happens next, but the Colts have to know they are in for quite an evening at Lucas Oil Stadium. They've had the Ravens' number over the past few years - just like the Patriots had until Sunday - but the Ravens usually make things uncomfortable for four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning.
The competitive equation doesn't change. The Ravens have to maintain their aggressive nature and control their emotions the way they did against the Patriots. They'll need to move the ball on the ground and - probably - squeeze more out of the passing game than they did in the wild-card round.
Flacco was hobbling around the field before Sunday's game, still very sore from the hip bruise that dogged him during the final weeks of the regular season. Everybody knew the Ravens would depend as much or more on the running game as they did against the Raiders in their must-win final regular-season game.
How does 52 carries for 234 yards grab you? When was the last time you saw a quarterback win a playoff game with four completions for 34 yards?
"Clearly, they showed that what they wanted to do was run the ball, and they did it and did it very well," said Pats nose tackle Vince Wilfork. "But all the credit to them. No excuses. Not on this end. We just didn't come to play."
It was borderline surreal in the first quarter, and the disbelief rippled through the crowd like an invisible wave.
Everybody knew the Ravens had this kind of game in them, but for one reason or another, they stumbled six straight times during the regular season against playoff-caliber teams after beating the San Diego Chargers on the road in Week 2.
"You've got to take your hat off to" the Patriots, said Ray Lewis, who along with Terrell Suggs put the pounding on Brady in the early minutes of the game. "They [Brady and coach Bill Belichick] never lost a playoff game at home. We've never beaten them. But you just had to erase all that.
"We kept coming. A lot of players made plays."
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.