The Baltimore defense did the rest and the Ravens are heading for an improbable Super Bowl matchup after upsetting the Oakland Raiders 16-3 Sunday in the AFC championship game.
"What does crow taste like? All of you got to eat crow tonight," Sharpe said after scoring the game's only touchdown on a record-setting, 96-yard connection from Trent Dilfer. He then reveled in taunting Oakland fans who pride themselves on being the loudest and most obnoxious in the NFL.
"We're going to Tampa to put this offense on display," he said. "We're not that good, but we're effective."
The Ravens got this far on defense and special teams and those came through again when it counted. Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Duane Starks led a defense that held the NFL's best rushing offense to 24 yards and the entire Oakland team to 83 yards in the first three quarters.
The next and final obstacle for the Ravens, formerly the Cleveland Browns, will be the New York Giants, another unlikely Super Bowl team. The Ravens were installed as early 2 1-2-point favorites for the NFL championship, to be played Jan. 28 in Tampa.
Facing a third-and-18 at his own 4-yard-line with the rowdy Raiders crowd screaming in his ear, Dilfer found Shannon Sharpe on a short slant inside safety Marquez Pope.
Sharpe raced past the rest of the secondary and headed for the end zone with teammate Patrick Johnson behind him, half pushing him over the goal line ahead of his pursuers to finish the longest pass play in postseason history.
"I had to remind Shannon: 'You're not that fast, so don't get carried away,' " Baltimore coach Brian Billick said.
Replied Sharpe: "I was looking at the Jumbotron to see who was running after me."
Gannon returned in the second half, but was ineffective and was lifted again for Bobby Hoying.
"It was a mess," Gannon said. "We just weren't very good. If I had been healthy, I don't think it would have made a difference."
The Baltimore defense was just too good and the offense needed no more than field goals from Matt Stover of 31, 28 and 29 yards.
That's standard for Baltimore, which went five consecutive games in October without scoring a touchdown. Now it has won 10 straight with Dilfer in place of Tony Banks, who started the season at quarterback.
"Shannon came to me in the third quarter and said, 'I don't know how much we've got left,' " Lewis said. "I just said, 'Don't worry about it.' "
|Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon (12), a target all day, gets hit by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.|
Lewis was right.
He had 10 tackles and recovered a fumble; Starks had two interceptions; and Sharper had two sacks and an interception for a defense that set an NFL record this season by allowing just 165 points in 16 games, 20 points fewer than the 1985 Chicago Bears.
The dominating defense was at its best in the third quarter, after Johnnie Harris intercepted deep in Baltimore territory. With the help of a roughing-the-passer penalty on Mike McCrary, the Raiders reached the Baltimore 2.
But Tyrone Wheatley lost a yard on first down, Sharper sacked Gannon on second down and a third-down pass was behind Randy Jordan, forcing the Raiders to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski.
A touchdown pass to Oakland's Andre Rison with 4 1/2 minutes left to play was nullified by pass interference on Rison, but was probably too late anyway.
"We're all sick as you can imagine. Our hearts are very heavy right now," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said.
"They stuck to their game plan. They let their defense play and they pretty much put it to our guys," Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson said.
The Super Bowl likely will put a huge spotlight on Lewis, the NFL's defensive player of the year.
Lewis was arrested after the Super Bowl in Atlanta last year and charged with murder in the stabbing of two men outside a night club. He eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and received probation.
"What I went through this off-season was like pure hell," Lewis said. "My teammates didn't care about that. My teammates listened to me and said, 'It's over now. Forget that distraction, wear it down. It's a closed chapter.'"
Lewis said going to Tampa "to play 20 minutes from my home town is unbelievable. It hasn't really settled in yet."
The Ravens dominated from the start, but couldn't capitalize on great field position.
Late in the first quarter, Robert Bailey intercepted Gannon at the Oakland 19. But the Ravens gained just one yard in three plays and Stover's field-goal attempt from 36 yards hit the right upright.
Then Oakland got the field position on a 56-yard punt by Shane Lechler and had the Ravens facing third-and-18 on their own 4. But Dilfer hit Sharpe on a short slant jst inside Pope, and Sharpe was suddenly clear.
Gannon was knocked out on the next series. Hoying's first pass was intercepted by Starks, setting up Stover's 31-yard field goal.
The offense did its bit for Baltimore in the third quarter.
After Janikowski's field goal, the Ravens came right back, driving 51 yards to set up a 29-yard kick by Stover that gave them a 10-point lead again.
The case was finally closed after the TD was called back.
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