- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

MIAMI — One of the hardest things to do in sports is to raise your level of play when it matters most to will yourself to perform better. Many a defending champ has struggled a bit the following season, then fooled itself into thinking it could turn it on when the playoff bell rang. Darn few, however, have actually done it.
The Baltimore Ravens looked like that rare exception, though, in their 20-3 backhanding of the Miami Dolphins yesterday at Pro Player Stadium. Indeed, the afternoon's events bore a striking resemblance to last year's postseason run, when the Ravens defense mauled one opponent after another, and the offense ran the ball with purpose and hit the occasional big play.
Obviously, you don't want to get too carried away here. This is, after all, the Dolphins we're talking about. The same club that got shut out by the 49ers and Jets this season. The same club that, in recent years, has tended to exit the playoffs ignominiously. Still, it's scary how the Ravens, when they're going good, can simply manhandle teams, good teams even on the road.
They won at Tennessee and Oakland last year to get to the Super Bowl. And now they've won at Miami and are headed to Pittsburgh, where they eked out a victory earlier this season. Hey, who can rule out anything with this club?
"A lot of people, when the pressure's on, they start shaking," Tony Siragusa said. "Their hair stands up on the back of their neck. We like the pressure. We like being the underdogs. We like people telling us we can't do things and then proving them wrong."
Any number of things happened to the Ravens yesterday that might have discouraged a lesser team. For starters, Jermaine Lewis fumbled the opening kickoff and handed the Dolphins three points. Then Terry Allen got stuffed on third-and-1 on Baltimore's first series, and just before halftime Matt Stover hit the upright on a 40-yard field goal try.
In a game that figured to be close, any one of those could have been a killer for the Ravens if they had let it. But they've been through so much this year what with the injuries to Jamal Lewis and Mike McCrary (among others) and the disturbingly inconsistent play of Elvis Grbac that they've almost built up an immunity to misfortune. And minor tragedies like turnovers, missed third-down conversions and failed field goal attempts don't seem to faze them at all.
You have to understand, Rod Woodson said. "When you're the defending champs, everybody gives you their best game. And it's hard to match that intensity every week [for 16 weeks]. Sometimes you just can't. But now it's the playoffs, and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We can see the Super Bowl. I think we're hungry again."
Allen, who rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown, looked positively famished. But then, he's never played in the Super Bowl indeed, the mere possibility was enough to lure him out of retirement when Lewis went down. Maybe my memory is fuzzy, but Terry looked as quick yesterday as he ever did with the Redskins.
Part of the reason may have been because he had six weeks off in November and December courtesy of a broken hand. Nothing like fresh legs to rejuvenate a running back. But Allen was having none of it. "How fresh can an old man be?" he said. Hard to argue with him there.
The parallels between last year and this are almost eerie. Once again, the Ravens have a second-round game against the club that won their division a game that will be looked upon by many as the Real AFC Championship Game. And after that, a possible rematch with the Raiders looms.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," Peter Boulware said. "I think the Steelers are the best team in the league right now. Who ever wins the game is definitely going to the Super Bowl."
The victory over the Dolphins may have meant more to Grbac than to anyone else in the Baltimore locker room. Let's not forget: Though a veteran quarterback, he'd never won a game in the postseason before yesterday. (Not that he'd had many chances.) Even Trent Dilfer, in his largely undistinguished career with the Bucs, had done that.
Grbac agreed the win was "important" to him. "With everything going on and everybody talking about Trent Dilfer, … I wanted to establish myself," he said. "Quarterbacks make their marks in the playoffs, and it was just a good feeling."
A couple of 90-yard drives the Ravens' two longest of the season will do that for you. If Elvis can make the kinds of throws against Pittsburgh that he did against Miami particularly the 45-yarder to Travis Taylor on third-and-1 and the back-of-the-end-zone job to Taylor over Patrick Surtain Baltimore might pull off another upset. This much seems clear, though: Whoever wants the Lombardi Trophy this year is going to have to pry it out of the Ravens' cold, dead hands.


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