Trent Dilfer is in the big game after he and the Ravens throttle the Raiders 16-3.
By ERNEST HOOPER
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 15, 2001
OAKLAND, Calif. -- For Baltimore's Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis and Shannon Sharpe, Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa will be a return engagement filled with redemption and rejuvenation.
The trio made the trip a reality Sunday by helping their team to a 16-3 victory over the Raiders in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, and for each, the journey to the Super Bowl will have special meaning.
For Dilfer, the erstwhile Bucs quarterback who endured six emotionally charged seasons here, the return to Tampa for the NFL's championship game is a remarkable recovery. He's taking a team to the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay a year after Tampa Bay told him to take a hike.
For Lewis, the phenomenal linebacker who played at nearby Lakeland Kathleen, it is a payoff after being tried for a double homicide that occurred at last year's Super Bowl in Atlanta. He's coming home after home almost became a penitentiary.
And for Sharpe, the former Broncos tight end who chose to extend his career in Baltimore, the trip marks his return to the Super Bowl after helping Denver to world championships in the 1997 and '98 seasons. He's coming back to the only stage large enough to handle his flavorful quotes.
"I don't know what Trent was today, probably 6-of-16, but you know where we'll take those stats?" Sharpe asked rhetorically. "To his home in Tampa. We're going to Busch Gardens."
Sharpe's tart comments were contrary to the humility displayed by Lewis and Dilfer. Both insisted that while this may be a big comeback, this is not a big payback.
"Before we came out, I told (coach) Brian (Billick) I had one thing to say," Lewis said. "I told him it wasn't about anything else. What I went through this off-season was like behind me.
"It's about each other now, nothing that I went through. For us to win this game today, it's for us ... we play for each other."
Sunday, the naysayers who criticized Dilfer, vilified Lewis and questioned Sharpe were buried along with the Raiders. Much like this trio, the Ravens as a whole were doubted. The offense was inept, the defense unchallenged. Sharpe reminded reporters of those inaccurate assesments.
"I just want to ask America what crow tastes like, because y'all are eating it," Sharpe quipped.
The Ravens defense ate up the Raiders. Oakland, the league's top rushing team, was limited to 24 rushing yards and 191 overall. The team failed to convert a third down in the first half and converted only two for the game.
The Ravens forced five turnovers, sacked Oakland starter Rich Gannon four times and basically rendered him ineffective midway through the game. The Raiders had no real answers, but few Baltimore opponents have this season. Oakland coach Jon Gruden said it's time to rank the Ravens defense as one of the best ever.
"They are up there with the Fearsome Foursome and the Steel Curtain," said Gruden, referring to the legendary Rams of the '60s and Steelers of the '70s. "After 18 games, to only yield 178 points, and to sustain that level of play for 19 football games, I'm going to be very complimentary about what they did this year."
The game turned on second-quarter plays that occurred within a minute of each other: Sharpe's (96-yard) touchdown and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa's hit on Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon.
Sharpe's reception was his third big play in as many games and was easily the most spectacular. He hauled in Dilfer's slant pass and then made a sharp turn up the middle of the field, breaking the arm tackle of Marquez Pope and outracing the rest of the Raiders.
On the play after the kickoff, Siragusa dropped Gannon on an incomplete pass, putting all of his 360 pounds on top of Gannon's left shoulder. Backup Bobby Hoying, who had attempted five passes the past two seasons, entered the game and was intercepted on his first attempt by Duane Starks.
Baltimore converted the interception into a 31-yard field goal.
Gannon returned in the third quarter and Oakland closed the gap to seven with a Sebastian Janikowski field goal after Dilfer was intercepted by former Tampa Bay Storm player Johnnie Harris.
But Gannon, who continued to experience pain because of the shoulder injury, clearly was not the same quarterback who had led the Raiders so deftly this season. Gannon's third-quarter interception, his second of the game, thwarted a scoring chance, and his fourth-quarter fumble was converted into Matt Stover's third field goal and the commanding 16-3 advantage.
Gannon gave way to Hoying. But the most the Raiders could do was move to the Baltimore 5 before the threat was snuffed out with 3:41 remaining by Jamie Sharper's interception.
Reaching the Super Bowl marks a clear triumph, but for the Ravens such as Dilfer, Sharpe and Lewis, who entered the season looking for something greater than their past, they still haven't found what they're looking for.
"I'm going to embrace the challenge of going down there," Dilfer said. "There's going to be a lot of chaos, a lot of distractions. And we'll just find a way. I can't tell you how we are going to do it, but we'll find a way."
The Ravens are the eighth non-division winner to advance to the Super Bowl. Here's how they have done:
'75 Cowboys L, Steelers 21-1
'80 Raiders W, Eagles 27-10
'85 Patriots L, Bears 46-10
'92 Bills L, Cowboys 52-17
'97 Broncos W, Packers 31-24
'99 Titans L, Rams 23-16