It was five years earlier that Art Modell shocked the football world when he packed up his Cleveland Browns and relocated them to Baltimore. Even though Cleveland would get a second edition of its franchise in 1999, it was the “old Browns”, renamed the Ravens in their new city, who got the championship that their former home city still longs for. The 2000 NFL season was marked by the Baltimore Ravens winning it all with one the great defenses of modern times.
Baltimore was led by Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who won Defensive Player of the Year honors. The Ravens had a strong running game, with Jamal Lewis going over 1,300 yards and Priest Holmes offering a nice change-of-pace. Both backs ran behind All-Pro tackle Jonathan Ogden. The lineup was augmented by Hall of Fame veterans on both sides of the ball—tight end Shannon Sharpe and safety Rod Woodson.
The Ravens weren’t exactly known for their quarterback play—to the point that even over two decades later, they’re the example immediately thrown up by those who argue that top-flight quarterback play isn’t necessary to win a Super Bowl. Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer split the regular season starts, with Dilfer being the one who was settled in as the starter when the playoffs arrived.
Under the divisional alignment that existed prior to 2002, the Ravens were in the AFC Central. So were the Tennessee Titans. Having come “thisclose” to winning the Super Bowl in ’99, the Titans were back for more. They had the second-best defense in the NFL. Samari Rolle was one of the game’s top corners, and Jevon Kearse was a Pro Bowl defensive end. The offense, with the versatile Steve McNair at quarterback, got All-Pro years from Eddie George in the backfield, Derrick Mason at receiver, and Bruce Matthews up front.
Baltimore and Tennessee were both recently relocated franchises—the Titans had been the Houston Oilers just four years ago. And in 2000, they were the two best teams in all of football.. Both teams got September wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were the third-best team in the AFC Central, but not quite playoff-caliber. Tennessee won the first head-to-head meeting with Baltimore, 14-6 on October 22. In fact, while the Titans were a contender right from the start, the Ravens were 5-4 when the calendar flipped to November.
But Baltimore found their mojo. They won the rematch with Tennessee 24-23, and barreled down the stretch, winning seven straight to close the regular season. The Titans kept rolling themselves, with a big 15-13 win over playoff-bound Philadelphia in December. Tennessee won the division, finished 13-3 and got the #1 seed in the AFC. Baltimore’s 12-4 record made them the top wild-card. Under the three-division format of the time, that set the Ravens as the 4-seed in the playoffs.
It wasn’t a shock that the pace in the NFC was being set by a team out of the East. The Washington Redskins had won the division a year earlier and signed a number of big-name free agents. And the Redskins got off to a fast start. By mid-October, they had wins over their top two division rivals in the Eagles and New York Giants. The ‘Skins had beaten the Ravens. And on a November Monday Night, Washington beat the defending champion St. Louis Rams 33-20.
But this would be the first of many Redskin editions owned by Daniel Snyder to ultimately underperform. Washington collapsed down the stretch and finished 8-8. And the Giants and Eagles picked up the pieces.
New York got 1,000-yard seasons from Tiki Barber running the football and Amani Toomer catching it. Jessie Armstead’s Pro Bowl season at middle linebacker anchored a top-5 defense. The Giants weren’t flashy or dominant, but they kept winning football games.
Meanwhile, a 24-year-old quarterback named Donovan McNabb was paired with an up-and-coming head coach in Andy Reid in Philadelphia. The Eagles got a big year from All-Pro defensive end Hugh Douglas, who recorded 15 sacks.
Philadelphia and New York had similar profiles—top defenses, and good-enough offenses. The difference came down to the Giants sweeping the head-to-head matchups. New York finished 12-4 and grabbed the 1-seed in the NFC. Philadelphia’s 11-5 record set them as the 4-seed.
The Rams were not just the defending champs, they had the most potent offense in the league. Even with Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner missing five games, St. Louis just had too many weapons. Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were each Pro Bowl receivers and they combined for over 3,000 yards receiving.
But no one was better than Marshall Faulk. With over 2,200 all-purpose yards, Faulk kept the offense rolling in Warner’s absence and made it even more explosive when Warner was healthy. Faulk won the MVP award.
The problem the Rams had was on defense. Even with a couple of good pass-rushing ends in Grant Wistrom and Kevin Carter, they still had the worst D in the league. Consequently, they played a lot of shootouts. And on the final week of the season, their playoff berth was still in doubt.
It was a surprise team in the New Orleans Saints, then aligned in the NFC West, that stepped up. The Saints were more balanced, and that started with a potent defensive line. La’Roi Glover was an All-Pro and recorded 17 sacks coming up the middle. Joe Johnson and Darren Howard combined for 23 more sacks. On offense, the Saints got a 1,000-yard season from Ricky Williams running the ball. Joe Horn was a Pro Bowl receiver. New Orleans ranked 10th on both offense and defense, and with a 10-6 record, won the division title.
The Saints also had a chance to knock out the Rams on the final week of the season. But St. Louis, its back to the wall, came into the Bayou and won 26-21. Both teams would go to the postseason, and they were slated to immediately rematch in the wild-card round.
For the second straight year, the NFC Central was a wide-open four-team race. The Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each made the playoffs, with the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions each going to the final week before coming up short.
Minnesota’s big-play passing attack had two Hall of Fame receivers, Randy Moss and Cris Carter, putting up numbers. Daunte Culpepper was the triggerman behind center and threw 33 touchdown passes. And the Vikes could run the football too, with Robert Smith piling up over 1,500 yards.
What Minnesota did not do was defend, and that was something Tony Dungy’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers had no issue with. The Bucs had Hall of Fame talent in Warren Sapp at defensive tackle, and linebacker Derrick Brooks. John Lynch was one of the league’s top safeties and Donnie Abraham picked off seven passes from his cornerback spot. The offense, built on the running game, got Pro Bowl seasons from Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott in the backfield.
The race for the division title and playoffs all came down to the final week. The Chicago Bears—the one team in this division who did not contend—upset Detroit, knocking out the Lions and keeping the Packers alive. Green Bay knocked off Tampa Bay. Even though the Rams’ win meant Brett Favre’s Packers stayed home, the Green Bay win over Tampa was highly consequential—it handed the Vikings the division title and 2-seed and dropped the Buccaneers to the 5-seed.
In the AFC, the top challengers to the Titans and Ravens came out of the AFC West. The Oakland Raiders had the league’s All-Pro quarterback in Rich Gannon, and explosive players with Tyrone Wheatley in the backfield and Hall of Fame receiver Tim Brown. The Raiders had big-play defenders, with Wiliam Thomas and Eric Allen intercepting six passes each at their cornerback spots. With Jon Gruden establishing himself as a head coach, Oakland was a contender.
Denver, coached by Mike Shanahan, had successfully rebuilt themselves after a year without John Elway. Brian Griese was now the quarterback, and the 25-year-old made the Pro Bowl, throwing to Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith. Mike Anderson rolled up nearly 1,500 yards on the ground. Up front, the Broncos had a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in Trevor Pryce and the game’s best center in Tom Nalen.
In the head-to-head matchups, Denver swept Oakland, but the Raiders were a little bit more consistent. Gruden’s team finished 12-4 and earned the 2-seed. Shanahan’s Broncos ended 11-5 and were the 5-seed—and the undesirable trip to Baltimore for wild-card weekend.
The playoff field was rounded out in the AFC East. Much like the NFC Central, this division had four pretty good teams—the Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, and Buffalo Bills. And two of those teams—the Dolphins and Colts—got into the postseason.
In the first year after the retirement of Dan Marino, Miami did it with the league’s third-best defense, a unit led by All-Pros in defensive end Jason Taylor and Sam Madison. They got further contributions from defensive tackle Trace Armstrong, who recorded 16 ½ sacks, and Pro Bowl free safety Brock Marion.
Conversely, Indianapolis did it with an offense led by 24-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning. Edgerrin James rolled up over 1,700 yards rushing, and Marvin Harrison posted over 1,400 yards receiving.
The most significant games of the year in the AFC East came in November. On a Sunday Night game, the Colts beat the Jets 23-15. That was why Indy made it, and New York stayed home. And on the weekend after Thanksgiving, the Dolphins beat the Colts 17-14. That was why Miami won the division and would host Indianapolis in the wild-card round.
That Dolphins-Colts game opened the postseason, and it was a classic. Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler rallied his team for a tying touchdown in the final minute and the Dolphins won 23-17 in overtime. In the late afternoon game, the Saints exploded to a 31-7 lead over the Rams, held off a furious rally, and prevailed 31-28. There would be a new champion.
Sunday of Wild-Card Weekend was a little more pedestrian. The defenses of Baltimore and Philadelphia were dominant at home, decisively dispatching Denver and Tampa Bay, respectively. Both final scores ended at 21-3.
In the Divisional Round, Miami’s offensive shortcomings came home to roost, and the Raiders routed the Dolphins 27-0. The Vikings ended the Saints’ special season with an easy 34-16 win. The Giants’ 20-10 win over the Eagles was more comfortable than the score more might make it appear. The game that mattered was the one that went down in Nashville in the early Sunday afternoon timeslot.
As expected, Tennessee and Baltimore waged a defensive war. It was tied 10-10 early in the fourth quarter. The Titans were lined up for a short field goal. It was blocked and returned for a touchdown. In the blink of an eye, the Ravens were ahead 17-10.
That was the single most important play of the 2000 NFL season. That Raven defense wasn’t going to give up the lead, and Lewis sealed the 24-10 win with a Pick-6.
And it’s really not too much to say, that the story of this season fundamentally ends there as well. It sounds strange to say with the three biggest games still on deck. But the Titans were the only team good enough to beat the Ravens by this point. Baltimore went to Oakland and completely took apart the Raider offense in a 16-3 win.
It was more than a small surprise that the Vikings—a narrow road favorite in the Meadowlands– completely melted down in the NFC Championship Game. The Giants won a shocking 41-0 decision. All of which was a nice story. But New York was no match for Baltimore in the Super Bowl. The Ravens won 34-7 and the Giants’ lone touchdown came on special teams.
A defense that would continue to build on its reputation over the next decade-plus had its crowning moment. The Baltimore Ravens were champs.