In a postseason defined by defense, the Ravens struck an ominous pose yesterday.
Super Bowl contender.
On the heels of a 21-3 wild-card dismantling of the Denver Broncos, the Ravens suddenly look like a very tough team to beat.
Maybe even the team to beat.
"I think so," said defensive end Michael McCrary, after his three-sack effort underscored another dominating performance. "Defense wins championships. We went down in history this year when we broke two records for defense."
The Ravens (13-4) are trying to make history now by becoming the second straight AFC Central wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl. The road winds through Adelphia Coliseum, where they'll renew a fierce division rivalry with the Tennessee Titans in a playoff game Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
They split the season series with Tennessee, losing at home on Oct. 22, 14-6, and winning in Nashville on Nov. 12, 24-23. The Ravens are the only visiting team to win in Adelphia in the Titans' two seasons there.
"I'm not sure how many people thought we would go back there, given the circumstances," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "There's a great deal of respect between these two teams, and I think they knew we were going back there, and we knew we were going to be back there. It's going to be a hell of a game."
Yesterday's game - played in wind gusts of up to 27 mph with a wind-chill factor of 5 degrees - brought Baltimore's tenacious defense to a new high. Discredited for playing a soft schedule in a soft division, the Ravens systematically destroyed one of the NFL's best offenses.
A record crowd of 69,638 at PSINet Stadium watched as the Ravens allowed the league's second-ranked offense just 42 rushing yards and 177 total yards. The Broncos crossed midfield only once, got as far as the 12, and settled for a 31-yard field goal by Jason Elam.
For Ravens offensive tackle Harry Swayne, who had played two seasons with the Broncos, the shutdown was a revelation.
"I was kind of surprised we were able to do that to them," Swayne said. "I know how Denver prides itself on offense, but they had out-and-out total breakdowns.
"Receivers were dropping balls, and they never drop balls. It's not the weather, either, because it's just as bad out in Denver. I think they were a little surprised by how hard we bring it."
The Ravens brought it hard enough that 1,500-yard rusher Mike Anderson was held to 40 yards on 15 carries. The inability to run, along with a second-quarter deficit, chased the Broncos out of the running game in the second half.
The key issue for the Ravens was avoiding the cut blocks the Broncos' offensive line is so famous for delivering.
"We were on the ground at times," said defensive tackle Sam Adams, "but when you get knocked on the ground, you have to get up quickly and be able to make some plays."
The Ravens negated the Broncos' run-blocking technique with their athleticism, said defensive end Rob Burnett.
"We said this was the best matchup in the game because we are so athletic," said Burnett, who had one of the Ravens' five sacks. "The coaches told us to stay on our feet and run to the ball."
The Ravens won that matchup and more. With what was essentially a four-man pass rush, they pressured quarterback Gus Frerotte into a 13-for-28 performance that produced 124 yards and one interception. Frerotte, playing in place of injured Brian Griese, was intercepted by middle linebacker Ray Lewis in the first quarter, Frerotte's first pick in 88 throws.
Frerotte was also unable to take advantage of the spread formation that had tormented the Ravens twice in the past four games.
"When we see them spread out with no running backs in the backfield, it's important to get as far up-field as we can, so he can't see receivers," Adams said.
Defense and special teams gave the Ravens' offense field position most of the day. Baltimore's average starting point was its 42-yard line. Denver's average drive started on its 23.
Offensively, the Ravens got a big rushing game from rookie running back Jamal Lewis (110 yards on 30 carries with two touchdowns) and a fortuitous touchdown pass from Trent Dilfer to tight end Shannon Sharpe, another former Bronco.
Lewis had capped a 75-yard drive with an acrobatic, 1-yard touchdown dive in the second quarter. Denver answered with Elam's field goal.
After a short, high kickoff into the wind and a 15-yard return by Corey Harris, the Ravens took over on their own 42. The game turned dramatically on the next play.
It started as a short toss to Lewis in the flat. But Lewis mishandled the ball, and then Denver cornerback Terrell Buckley batted it. Sharpe, who cut short his route, wound up catching the ball when he was preparing to make a tackle.
The Ravens iced the game in the third quarter when a 17-yard punt return by Jermaine Lewis set them up at the Denver 28. Two plays later, Jamal Lewis bounced off middle linebacker Al Wilson and ran through would-be tackles by safeties Billy Jenkins (high) and Eric Brown (low) for a 27-yard touchdown.
Dilfer, who completed nine of 14 passes for 130 yards, left for one series in the third quarter with a concussion on a sack by Jenkins, but returned later.
The next stop for the Ravens is Tennessee, which went to the Super Bowl a year ago as a wild-card team out of the AFC Central.
"We could play them tomorrow," safety Rod Woodson said. "We could play them in the parking lot. We've been underdogs all year. We know how good we are."
Denver coach Mike Shanahan didn't offer any coronations of the Ravens' defense yet, but he did offer some perspective.
"When you win Super Bowls, I think you always put those defenses in an elite class," he said. "If Baltimore can do that, I think this defense will be considered one of the best of all time."