- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2001

OAKLAND, Calif. The Baltimore Ravens didn't just win the AFC championship yesterday, they out-Raidered the Raiders. They sent Rich Gannon, Oakland's Pro Bowl quarterback, to the sideline with a shoulder injury. They shut down the league's No. 1 rushing attack, holding it to 24 yards. They went into a hostile environment Network Associates Coliseum, a k a the Black Hole and walked out with a victory.

That was the kind of thing the Raiders did all the time in their halcyon days of the '60s, '70s and '80s. And now the Ravens have stolen their act. Baltimore is the kind of team that would warm the cockles of Al Davis' heart if he had one.

There can be no questioning the Ravens' legitimacy now. When you allow just 16 points in three playoff games and knock off the conference's top two seeds on their own turf, you're a serious, serious football team. How serious? This serious: When Shannon Sharpe asked defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis how many points the defense needed to beat the Raiders, Lewis answered, "Seven." Seven points in a conference title game. And actually, Lewis underestimated his unit; two field goals would have been sufficient. Final score: Baltimore 16, Oakland 3.

"I may never throw the ball again ever," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

He was joking, of course, but I'd like to see him try it some time if only for a game. With his D, he just might get away with it. As it showed against the Raiders, the Baltimore defense is a lot more than Ray Lewis and 10 Other Guys. Duane Starks, a Darrell Green-sized corner, had an all-world afternoon, picking off two passes and making a pest of himself throughout. And Jamie Sharper, the least known of the three linebackers, was credited with a team-leading nine tackles, two sacks and one interception.

"A lot of people have been overlooked on this defense," Starks said. "But I think they'll be noticed now."

How could they not? They're in the Super Bowl, and they've got coaches like the Raiders' Jon Gruden saying they're "up there with the Fearsome Foursome and the Steel Curtain." If Gruden wasn't so young (37), he probably would have thrown in the Monsters of the Midway, too.

This game easily could have been a blowout along the lines of the Giants' 41-0 win over the Vikings in the NFC title game. The Baltimore offense had great field position the entire first half, starting at the Oakland 42 (after a 38-yard punt return by Jermaine Lewis), the Oakland 19 (after Robert Bailey's interception), the Oakland 49 (after a short punt) and the Oakland 20 (after Starks' first INT). But it came away with only three points in those four series which might have made a difference if Ray Lewis and Co. weren't so all-powerful.

"We struggled [on offense]," Sharpe said. "But we didn't look as bad as the other offenses we played in the playoffs."

No, they didn't. But if they'd had to go up against their own defense, they might have.

The Ravens offense did make a couple of plays, though, and that seems to be enough these days. One of them was pretty memorable a postseason-record 96-yard touchdown pass to Sharpe that gave Baltimore a 7-0 lead. It came on a third-and-18 play, and all Trent Dilfer was trying to do was "get us out of a hole [at the 4-yard line]. But Sharpe, running a quick slant, broke a feeble tackle attempt by Oakland safety Marquez Pope and, miraculously, went the length of the field. The last few yards, teammate Patrick Johnson was gently pushing him into the end zone.

"I was trying to find the Jumbotron [as he was chugging downfield]," he said, "because I wanted to see where [Oakland] guys were coming from [behind him]. Patrick Johnson scared me. He almost tripped me twice."

In the third quarter, after the Raiders had scored to narrow the gap to 10-3, the Ravens offense made its other big play a 24-yard completion to Ben Coates at the Oakland 19 to set up a field goal. That quieted the home folks, who had been enlivened by Gannon's return to the game, and the Raiders never got any closer after that.

When you've got your tight end going 96 yards for a score and an end-of-the-liner like Coates coming through in the clutch, you know it's your year. These Ravens always manage to do what's needed, whether it's making a goal-line stand at the start of the second half, when Oakland threatened to close within a field goal, or inadvertently kicking the ball out of Gannon's hand to force a key fumble (as Rob Burnett did).

The Ravens are riding a wave, a 10-game-winning-streak wave, and looking nigh invincible. And now they're in the Super Bowl their first Super Bowl and Art Modell's first Super Bowl (after 35 years of trying). How sweet is that?

There are plenty of people in Baltimore who still "hold on to their memory of the Colts," Billick said. "And we want them to. But there's a whole new generation of Ravens fans now who are going to supplement that love of the Colts."

There doesn't seem to be any question about that. With yesterday's victory, the Ravens Era in Baltimore has officially begun.

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