The football world was supposed to see how far the Ravens had fallen after their historic salary cap dismantling.

Instead, the Ravens ripped apart the previously unbeaten Denver Broncos in the first half last night before escaping with a 34-23 victory, seizing the national spotlight and commanding new respect to wrap up the NFL season's unpredictable first month.

Turning their trash-talk rhetoric into reality, the Ravens (1-2) strutted to within a half game of the AFC North-leading Browns and will play for the division lead Sunday night in Cleveland. The Broncos (3-1) imploded with untimely penalties and special teams gaffes to became the fifth previously undefeated team to fall in Week 4.

"Only in America can you win one game and still be in it," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "So, God bless America."

Said inside linebacker Ray Lewis: "I really think it was a young ballclub coming out and just fighting. The rest is history."

The Ravens' offense, which hadn't scored in 123 1/2 minutes, struck for three touchdowns during a 31-point second quarter, the most prolific quarter in franchise history.

Tight end Todd Heap, who had been averaging 5 yards a catch, overshadowed his mentor, Shannon Sharpe, with several acrobatic catches and finished with five receptions for 84 yards and two touchdowns.

The 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.

"That [second] quarter was wild," said Ravens quarterback Chris Redman. "It was great we came together as a team."

The Ravens' ambush was sparked by a special teams sneak attack.

Fielding a missed field-goal attempt 8 yards deep in the end zone, McAlister slowed up near the goal line but decided not to take a knee. Breaking free to the outside after a crushing hit by Lewis on the Broncos' Keith Burns at the 5, McAlister went 108 yards untouched and starting high-stepping for the final 30 yards as Billick followed him down the sideline with his hands raised.

The longest play in NFL history gave the Ravens a commanding 31-3 first-half lead.

"That's the way we practice it," McAlister said. "I watched and hung in the end zone and let my guys set up the wall. All I saw was purple jerseys and green until I hit the end zone."

The Ravens went into cruise control in the second half and never let their lead dwindle under 11 points as Denver closed out the game with three touchdowns. They have won 31 straight games when leading in the fourth quarter - the longest current streak in the NFL.

"I told the team just before we came out to follow me," said Lewis, who recorded 18 tackles, broke up two passes and made an interception. "Match my passion. Match my energy."

Broncos defensive tackle Lional Dalton, a former Raven, was impressed by his ex-team.

"They just kicked our butts in every phase," Dalton said. "Brian Billick has [Denver coach] Mike Shanahan's number. He owns him. They were ready to play and we weren't. We made their season. They just won their Super Bowl."

Trailing 3-0 and with their scoreless drought having been extended to eight quarters, the Ravens went on the attack in the second quarter.

On third-and-one at the Denver 23, Redman made a play-action fake and lofted the ball to Heap in the end zone. With safety Kenoy Kennedy turned around, Heap leaped over him and caught the touchdown pass 45 seconds into the second quarter. It ended the Ravens' scoreless streak at 22 drives.