The Ravens needed only a matter of minutes to obliterate the team of the decade.
From the first offensive play - Ray Rice's sensational 83-yard sprint for a touchdown - the Ravens ambushed the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in front of an announced 68,756 with one of the best starts in NFL playoff history and ran away with a 33-14 victory in an AFC wild-card game Sunday.The Ravens' first step toward the Super Bowl represented an authoritative stomp: The sixth-seeded Ravens (10-7) played physically, fast and nearly flawlessly to vault to a 24-0 first-quarter lead and shatter the mystique of the Patriots (10-7).
Rice made a mockery of Bill Belichick's once-revered defensive strategy, gaining 94 yards and two touchdowns in the first 11 minutes. The Ravens' defense rattled quarterback Tom Brady into three turnovers on the first four series, turning the playoff hero into Kyle Boller.
Now, after beating the most successful franchise of the 2000s (the Patriots won three Super Bowl titles), the Ravens advance to play the team with the most wins of the decade - the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts - Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
"When you beat a team like the New England Patriots, it sets a high precedent for any Ravens team. We will always remember this win," Rice said. "The ultimate goal is the Super Bowl. Beating them up here really puts us toward that goal."
The Ravens showed they weren't in awe of the Patriots' tradition - Belichick and Brady had never lost a home playoff game - from the time they stepped onto the field.
It started on the Ravens' first snap, when Rice squeezed through a crease in the middle of the line. On one of the most basic running plays in the Ravens' playbook - offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said he has called it hundreds of times in his career - center Matt Birk shoved Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork to the left side and guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda opened a crack.
Rice then beat safety Brandon Meriweather (who started 15 yards from the line of scrimmage) to the left sideline and outraced everyone to the end zone. Rice's career-long run put the Ravens ahead 7-0 just 17 seconds into the game.
"To start off with that big run was a statement by our offensive line and by Ray," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
According to running back Willis McGahee, Rice made the statement long before the touchdown. Small yet powerful, Rice told teammates in the locker room that he would bust a long run and set the tempo, McGahee said.
"I wanted to be the guy today to start this game off fast, whether it was going to be a 5-yard run on the first play or an 83-yard run," said Rice, who finished with 159 yards on 22 carries. "I wanted to be the guy to say this will be a fast-tempo game. We want the other team to play catch-up to us."
The Ravens' defense then roughed up Brady - legally this time. After getting penalized for roughing the passer twice against Brady on Oct. 4, the Ravens relentlessly pressured the quarterback, who had won 23 straight home games.
Terrell Suggs' strip of Brady on the first series led to Le'Ron McClain's 1-yard touchdown run. Chris Carr's interception (which was the result of Jarret Johnson's pressure on Brady) led to Rice's 1-yard touchdown run. And Reed's interception-and-lateral to Dawan Landry led to a 27-yard field goal.
The damage after one quarter: 24-0. The pained look on Brady's face was likely the combination of the Ravens' staggering defense and various injuries (he declined after the game to talk about his shoulder, ribs and finger ailments).
"I think if you get caught up in the whole tradition and Tom Brady in the playoffs, it can get a little overwhelming," Carr said. "The more we watched film, we were like: We're better than this team."
And while there was no snow at Gillette, the Ravens' start - which tied the most points scored in the first quarter of a playoff game since 1991 - was the result of a snowball effect.
"I think we were more ready to play emotionally than they were," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "It has nothing to do with game plan or anything. After that first run, you could tell it was going to happen. It's hard to overcome that. That's a psyche killer."
Although it was hard to tell from Sunday's game, this Ravens' offense was once a slow-starting one. The Ravens didn't score a first-half offensive touchdown in six straight games midway in the season.
Sunday's rapid start - the Ravens out-gained the Patriots 124-20 in the first quarter - happened in a flash.
"We looked up on the scoreboard, and all of sudden it's 24-0," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who acknowledged that he's battling a quadriceps injury after setting Ravens playoff lows with four completions and 34 passing yards. "It's like, where did the first quarter go? How did we get all of those points? That was a huge start for us. It was a huge confidence boost and got the whole team going."
The Ravens' first-ever win over New England began with a flash and ended with a high-five. Before the team flew back to begin preparations for the Colts, Harbaugh ran along the base of the lower deck and slapped hands with Ravens fans.
"I was surprised there were that many Ravens" fans, Harbaugh said. "There were thousands of Ravens fans all along the end zone and over top of the tunnel. It just overwhelms you when you see that. You see that sea of purple and the looks on their faces - you just had to go and be a part of it."