Ten plays that told story of Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV victory

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The idea still didn’t feel possible.

Five years earlier, the Ravens didn’t yet exist. Before that, efforts to bring the NFL back to Baltimore felt fruitless after the expansion snub in 1993 and no shortage of teams flirting with Charm City just long enough to get new stadiums in their home markets or someplace else.

A popular vow in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that Baltimore would win another Super Bowl before the Indianapolis Colts would taste an NFL championship. But such claims often felt empty over 12 years of quiet Sundays in the fall.

Of course, that changed with Art Modell’s old Cleveland franchise arriving in 1996 and culminated on Jan. 28, 2001 with the upstart Ravens and the best defense in the land traveling to Tampa to take on the New York Giants, the same franchise Baltimore had edged in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” some 42 years earlier.

Below are the 10 plays that told the story of the 34-7 victory in Super Bowl XXXV with clips courtesy of the NFL and CBS Sports:

1. Trent Dilfer’s 38-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley

There’s no sugarcoating how bad the 2000 Ravens offense could be after going five straight games without scoring a touchdown in October and managing only a single offensive touchdown in each of the previous two playoff wins at Oakland and Tennessee. Head coach Brian Billick often talked about offensive “explosives,” but his offense had managed a total of just seven plays of 20 or more yards in the postseason entering Super Bowl Sunday.

The Ravens came out aggressive against Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn as Dilfer just overthrew a deep ball to an open Patrick Johnson on their second drive of the game. On their next series, Dilfer went after Sehorn again, hitting Stokley for an early 7-0 lead that already put New York in trouble against one of the greatest defenses in NFL history.

2. Ray Lewis runs down Tiki Barber

There was nothing significant to the game’s outcome about this second-and-8 first-quarter handoff to Barber, who was the “Lightning” to Ron Dayne’s “Thunder” in the Giants backfield. But a 260-pound middle linebacker sprinting from the far hash to tackle the speedy running back along the sideline for a measly 2-yard gain?

As Billick uttered from the sideline early in the game, “They don’t know how fast we are. They don’t know.” Lewis’ tackle illustrated that reality for NFL Films to highlight over and over.

3. Jamie Sharper’s big hit on Ike Hilliard

As if the speed of the Baltimore defense weren’t enough, the outside linebacker reminded the Giants of the unit’s physicality as he leveled Hilliard on a short Kerry Collins pass deflected at the line of scrimmage by Tony Siragusa.

It was only the first play of the second quarter, but that incompletion and brutal hit quickly led to what would already be New York’s sixth punt of the night. It was already apparent that the Giants were no match for the Ravens’ speed and ferocity.

4. Jessie Armstead’s interception return called back

We always remember the calls going against our teams, but a rather benign holding penalty on Giants defensive tackle Keith Hamilton wiped out a disastrous mistake by Dilfer that had Billick absolutely livid on the sideline.

Does that Armstead touchdown return flip the night’s script in favor of the Giants? Highly unlikely, but a touchdown there could have made the game much closer than it turned out.

5. Qadry Ismail’s 44-yard reception on third-and-2

Even with the Ravens defense forcing seven punts and an interception to that point in the game, you’re not comfortable with a 7-0 lead, especially after the interception scare earlier in the quarter. This time, Dilfer elected to pick on Giants cornerback Dave Thomas, dropping a beautiful throw into the arms of Ismail that came so close to going for a touchdown.

Instead of punting from deep in their own territory, the longest play from scrimmage of the night gave Baltimore a great chance to grow its lead before intermission.

6. Matt Stover’s 47-yard field goal

The Ravens had the NFL’s best kicker that season as Stover made a league-high 35 field goals and was exactly what was needed to complement their defense-first, conservative brand of football. With less than two minutes to go in the first half, this try was hardly a chip shot after a high snap from John Hudson, but Stover left no doubt.

With the way the Baltimore defense was dominating, a 10-0 lead likely felt like a four-touchdown deficit to the Giants. Stover would miss a shorter try midway through the third quarter, but this one gave the Ravens a two-score lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

7. Chris McAlister’s interception just before halftime

A 16-yard completion and a 27-yard Barber run on back-to-back snaps — two of New York’s three longest plays of the night — gave the Giants new life at the Baltimore 29 with just over a minute to go in the first half. Even a field goal would have left Jim Fassel’s team feeling better about itself in a one-score game in which the offense had been smothered over the first 30 minutes.

Instead, a slithering Michael McCrary pressured Collins into throwing into double coverage where McAlister picked off the pass inside the 5. That would prove to be the Giants’ last best chance to make it a tight game.

8. Duane Starks returns interception 49 yards for touchdown

Having dodged a bullet with Stover’s missed field goal after his third interception of the night on the Giants’ opening drive of the second half, Collins wouldn’t be so lucky this time. Starks stepped in front of Hilliard to pick off the quick slant and continue his brilliant postseason that included two picks in the AFC Championship win over the Raiders two weeks earlier.

The game appeared all but over at 17-0 with under 19 minutes to play, but the third-year corner had just triggered one of the most exciting sequences in Super Bowl history.

9. Ron Dixon’s 97-yard kick return touchdown thwarts shutout bid

The Ravens came so close to recording the first shutout in Super Bowl history after finishing with four in the regular season as Collins and the Giants offense never reached the red zone that night.

But the speedy Dixon had other ideas as reserve linebacker Cornell Brown whiffed on the best shot to bring him down and the Giants suddenly believed they still had a pulse. Not for long.

10. Jermaine Lewis returns ensuing kickoff 84 yards for game-sealing touchdown

The former Pro Bowl return specialist had tragically lost his newborn son the previous month before returning two punts for touchdowns in the regular-season finale. Lewis had a 34-yard punt return to set up Baltimore’s first-quarter touchdown, but the former Terps star was ready to put the exclamation point on Super Bowl XXXV.

Taking a short kick and navigating behind his wedge of blockers to tightrope the sideline on his way to the end zone, Lewis pointed to the heavens — to Geronimo — in a moment that meant so much to him, the Ravens, and their euphoric fans. At 24-7, the game was unequivocally over despite another 18 minutes to go in which the Ravens would add 10 more points and force three more New York punts.

From that point, we hugged our fathers, mothers, siblings, grandparents, friends, neighbors, and even a few strangers. We smiled while reflecting on something that had felt impossible for so long. And we cried.

That old vow had indeed been fulfilled with Baltimore back on top of the football world — before Indianapolis.