The wild-card Baltimore Ravens concluded their wild ride to the Super Bowl by beating a favored Oakland Raider team today the way they've been winning all season: with a punishing defense.
Led by Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Duane Starks, the Baltimore defense notched four sacks, four interceptions and held the No. 1 Raiders rushing game to just 24 yards all afternoon as the Ravens (15-4) advanced to Super Bowl XXXV.
There, they will compete against the NFC champion New York Giants, who earlier today pummeled the favored Minnesota Vikings 41-0 at the Meadowlands.
Sharpe’s Catch Is Biggest Play of Game
As expected, this game was a defensive battle — the teams combined for just 471 yards of total offense and instead relied on their defensive squads to make big plays and their kickers to pile up the points.
The Ravens never trailed today, scoring the only touchdown of the game on a 96-yard play with 11 minutes and eight seconds left in the second quarter. William Thomas sacked Trent Dilfer for a six-yard loss and Jamal Lewis wasn't able to push the Ravens into safer territory as he was stopped for no gain, setting up the 3rd-and-18 situation on the Ravens' four yard line.
With their backs against their own end zone, Baltimore wideout Shannon Sharpe caught Dilfer's short pass over the middle and broke through the defensive clutter to sprint the length of the field for the 96-yard score, the longest pass play in NFL playoff history.
The rest of the scoring rested on the legs of the two kickers. Matt Stover made three field goals for Baltimore — from distances of 29, 31 and 21 yards — but missed a 39-yard attempt when the ball bounced off the right upright.
Sebastian Janikowski's 24-yard field goal with 10:11 left in the third accounted for Oakland's only points today. Johnnie Harris' interception on a 3rd-and-19 situation set up that drive for the Raiders, who had to settle for the field goal when Randy Jordan dropped a 2-yard pass from Rich Gannon.
Sharper’s Pick Ends Drive
Entering this game, the battle lines were drawn between the No. 2 Baltimore defense and the No. 1 Oakland running game. But the Ravens handily won that war in the trenches, holding Tyrone Wheatley to 7 yards on 12 carries this afternoon. The Ravens have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 36 games.
Ray Lewis led the Ravens' defense, which allowed a record-low 165 points in the regular season, with five solo tackles and two assists, and one fumble recovery today. (See sidebar.)
The Raiders' top rusher was quarterback Bobby Hoying, who shared time with Gannon after the 13-year veteran was pounded into the turf by Baltimore defensive tackle Tony Siragusa in the second quarter. Hoying scrambled for 13 yards on three attempts for the bulk of the Raiders' 24 yards on the ground.
The Ravens lead the league in turnovers with 55, having added four more takeaways today by equally picking off Gannon and fifth-year passer Hoying. Starks had two of those interceptions, in addition to five tackles.
But it was Sharper, who also had two sacks, who made the biggest interception of the day for the Ravens. After Andre Rison's touchdown pass was nullified by an offensive pass interference call, Sharper picked off Hoying on 3rd-and-goal with 3:41 left in the game to stave off a 13-play Oakland drive and preserve the Ravens' 16-3 victory.
Hoying finished the day 8-for-16 for 107 yards and two interceptions. Gannon went 11-for-21 for 80 yards while taking four sacks and throwing two interceptions.
First Super Bowl for Modell
Dilfer passed for 190 yards today and was sacked twice and intercepted once as the Ravens' capped their improbable, determined drive to the Super Bowl.
Baltimore beat Denver in the wild-card game two weeks ago, then stunned the Tennessee Titans last week and proceeded to take the Titans' crown as AFC Champions with the win today.
Owner Art Modell, who was vilified in Cleveland for taking the Browns out of Ohio and christening them the Ravens of Baltimore, is going to his first Super Bowl.