The Ravens’ 2000 defense is routinely regarded as one of the best units in NFL history — on either side of the ball.
They allowed the fewest points in a 16-game season (165) and let up just 970 yards on the ground, they shut out their opponents four times and held them to 10 points or less nine times in the regular season and even won two of five games despite their offense not scoring a touchdown for a month-and-a-half.
But on Jan. 7, 2001, that defense had to come up big against the team’s biggest rivalry in the early years of the franchise.
The Ravens, despite a 12-4 record — tied for second-best in the league — finished in second in the AFC Central behind a Titans team with a better offense and, shockingly, a defense that wasn’t necessarily totally out of the Ravens’ league.
Tennessee and Baltimore were the only two teams in the NFL to allow fewer than 200 points in the entire season, and over the final three weeks of the year, Tennessee had allowed just three points.
Eddie George led the Titans attack and rushed 403 times for 1,509 yards in 16 games.
Since the two teams were division rivals, the two had played twice before in Weeks 8 and 11. The Ravens lost the first matchup 14-6 at home, but won 24-23 on the road due to a last-second touchdown in Week 11. If there was a team that was going to beat the Ravens and their defense, it was the Titans.
The rubber match in the Divisional Round of that year’s playoffs got started exactly as expected: George and Jamal Lewis both scored rushing touchdowns in the first and second quarters, and field goals by both teams tied the game at 10 headed to the fourth quarter. There, the Ravens got a boost from the only place they could get it from: Their defense and special teams.
Anthony Mitchell blocked a 37-yard field goal attempt and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown to give the Ravens a 17-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. And with just under seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Ray Lewis intercepted a deflected pass that went off George’s arms and returned it for a touchdown. It was one of the most famous plays of the Ravens’ Super Bowl run that season and one of the highlights of Lewis’ Hall of Fame career.
But what if that game had swung the other way?
The easiest place to find the pivot point is Mitchell’s 90-yard return. If Al Del Greco, who was 7-of-8 from in-between 30 and 39 yards that season, had made that field goal, the Ravens would’ve trailed 13-10 and needed some quick points in the fourth quarter.
How likely that would’ve been is clearly lost to history, but it’s important to note that quarterback Trent Dilfer was 5-of-16 for 117-yards passing that day. Jamal Lewis had just 47 yards on 17 carries on the ground. Essentially, the Ravens weren’t going to score that game unless the defense or special teams put them in a position to do so, or simply did it themselves.
If that game had ended differently, the Titans would’ve hosted the AFC Championship Game against the Raiders. If they were able to win a home game against a team the Ravens beat, and a game against the Giants — a team they’d already beaten that season — the Titans would’ve had an incredibly successful two-year run of two Super Bowl appearances and one victory.
The Ravens, however, would’ve clearly lost their Lombardi Trophy, but they likely would’ve lost more than just that.
The 2000 Ravens defense still would’ve been considered one of the best units in league history, but the aura of the team would’ve been drastically different without a title under their belt. Instead of cementing their legacy forever, the door would’ve been opened for naysayers to debate the legitimacy of a non-title team. The Steel Curtain Steelers were champions, as were the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Additionally, Ray Lewis’ career would’ve been viewed from a different perspective, especially as his career wound down.
When the Ravens went to the Super Bowl in 2013 against the 49ers, it was his famed “last ride” before retirement. If he hadn’t won in 2001 against the Giants, there would’ve been much more pressure to get Ray Lewis, and the Ravens’, first ever championship since moving to the city.
For the Ravens, though, they don’t have to think like that.
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