- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2001

TAMPA, Fla. Fats Henry, the '20s kicking terror, would have loved Super Bowl XXXV. There were so many punts (21), you would have sworn it was the Pottsville Maroons and the Rock Island Independents out there, not the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants.

Punts and punishment those were the featured attractions last night at Raymond James Stadium. And not unexpectedly, it was the Ravens who were doling out most of the latter. The Giants have a fine defense, no question, but Baltimore's is one for the ages. The Ravens hit to hurt. You can feel the collisions, even up in the press box. When the ball carrier advances past the line of scrimmage, Ray Lewis and Co. react as if he's trespassing on their property.

After Baltimore's 34-7 victory over New York, there can be no doubt: The Ravens are the best team in football, and Lewis the game's deserving MVP is the best player. It's possible a defender has had a better Super Bowl than Ray did, but if so it has escaped my memory. He covered so much ground, protected so much turf, there seemed to be two or three of him on the field.

"I played a helluva game," he said afterward, quite correctly. "But that's just what I do, anyway."

We all knew about Lewis as a tackler. The man rearranges more bones than a chiropractor. But has a middle linebacker ever gotten his hand on more passes than Ray did against the Giants? I counted three tips and one bat down in the first half alone. Two of the tips nearly resulted in interceptions; the third was picked off by Jamie Sharper. Repeat: This is a middle linebacker doing this. Most middle linebackers can't cover worth a darn. Their teams take them out on passing downs.

But Lewis is the total package. Just when people were beginning to wonder if middle linebackers in the Butkus-Nitschke-Schmidt tradition were extinct, along comes Ray to remind us that, no, the mold hasn't been broken, no, football hasn't become totally emasculated, totally specialized. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn't it?

If Lewis wasn't running down speedy Tiki Barber on a sweep, he was swatting away a pass over the middle to Joe Jurevicius. Late in the third quarter, when the Ravens were comfortably in front 24-7, he nearly came up with an interception himself. He got a nice, deep drop on a throw to the tight end, reached up and just missed pulling the ball in. Hey, the guy's human, OK? He doesn't have hands like Cris Carter. But that's about the worst thing you can say about him.

How long has it been since a defensive player was this dominant? Since the heyday of Lawrence Taylor? Since Deacon Jones was rattling quarterbacks' cages? Or do we need to go back even farther than that? Do we need to go back to my man Fats Henry, pride of the Canton Bulldogs (among others)? Whatever the answer, we're talking a looong time. Lewis is Smithsonian Institution material.

And his defensive co-conspirators aren't far behind him. Kerry Collins looked like a lost puppy the entire evening; he just didn't seem prepared for the pass rush put on by Rob Burnett and Mike McCrary or the tight coverage of Duane Starks and Chris McAlister. After all, you don't see defenses like Baltimore's in the NFC.

(Or as Lewis put it, "No disrespect, but they played Minnesota's defense [in their last game, a 41-0 win].")

Collins threw, what four INTs? It easily could have been six or seven. And every time he fled the pocket, Ravens like Corey Harris would close so fast, Kerry would slide well short of the first down to avoid contact. He slid so often, you would have thought he was Rickey Henderson.

The only reason the Giants weren't shut out was that Ron Dixon, for the second time in three postseason games, ran a kickoff back for a touchdown. The goose egg would have been nice for the Ravens, the cherry on top of their cake, but it was hardly necessary. They shut down the New York offense so completely, limiting it to 149 yards some of them cheapies that there's no denying their greatness.

When the Giants tried a flea flicker in the second quarter, the ever-vigilant Baltimore 'D' completely smothered it. (Collins was nearly sacked, and the pass was nearly picked off.) The Ravens surrendered ground so grudgingly that a 19-yard completion from Collins to Amani Toomer, New York's longest of the game, brought an audible gasp from the crowd. Not a cheer, a gasp.

Who would have imagined it would turn out this way? A year ago, Baltimore was a middling 8-8 team. A year ago, Lewis was wearing handcuffs and being charged with two murders. And now Ray and the Ravens are the toast of the NFL.

"Our defense as a whole is the greatest thing ever to exist," McAlister gushed.

It's hard to argue with him, you have to admit.

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