It was 1996 that professional football returned to Baltimore after a 13-year absence. Three losing seasons led to the hiring of Brian Billick for the 1999 season. A jump up to 8-8 and respectability gave hope that perhaps a playoff trip might be next. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens did more than that—they won a Super Bowl with a defense that remains on the short list in any discussion of the best of all-time.
The great Ray Lewis was the middle linebacker and the future Hall of Famer was 1st-team All-Pro in 2000. He was joined in the linebacking corps by Peter Boulware, who registered seven sacks. The defensive front had a good pass rusher in end Rob Burnett, and a good interior with Pro Bowl tackle Sam Adams and big Tony Siragusa.
The secondary had a ball hawker in Duane Starks, who intercepted six passes. And Rod Woodson, who had the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh, was still a Pro Bowl free safety in Baltimore at the age of 35. With Marvin Lewis, a rising star in coaching at defensive coordinator, these Ravens allowed the fewest points of any team in the league.
Quarterback instability held back the offense. Tony Banks started much of the first half of the season, and then gave way to Trent Dilfer. Both were mediocre, but Dilfer did open up the offense a little more than Banks, as 6.6 yards-per-attempt for Dilfer compared to Banks 5.8 will attest. Dilfer was a little more mistake-prone—intercepted on 4.9 percent of his passes compared to 2.9% for Banks. But the defense was dominant enough to overcome that. In either case, the ’00 Ravens would forever be the stumbling block for pundits who say a team must have a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
What Baltimore could do was run the football. They had a Hall of Fame offensive tackle in Jonathan Ogden leading the way. Jamal Lewis was a rookie, and while he didn’t start right away, Lewis eventually got his chance and racked up 1,364 yards. Priest Holmes ran for 588 yards. Both could catch the ball out of the backfield.
Quadry Ismail caught 49 passes as the only wide receiver with any notable production, but the real target in the passing game was another future Hall of Fame player at tight end. Shannon Sharpe was now 32-years-old, but still a long way away from his future life as Skip Bayless’ debating partner on television. In 2000, Sharpe caught 67 passes and averaged better than twelve yards a catch. Baltimore’s offense ranked 14th in points scored. It wasn’t great. But it was enough.
The season opened at Pittsburgh. The Steelers were coming off a bad year in ’99 and would miss the playoffs (albeit narrowly) again this season. Holmes ran for 119 yards. Banks threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Ismail. The defense held Pittsburgh to 30 yards rushing and the result was a 16-0 shutout win.
Jacksonville came in for the home opener. The Jaguars had been one of the league’s best teams the previous four years, although they would slip under .500 in 2000. But the Ravens dug themselves an early hole, trailing 17-0 in the first quarter and then 23-7 at half.
In what would be a decided rarity, the offense bailed the defense out. Banks threw four of his five touchdown passes in the second half. The final one was a 29-yard strike to Sharpe in the final minute that pulled out a 39-36 win.
Baltimore went down to Miami to face a good, playoff-bound Dolphins team on Sunday Night Football. The Ravens were not yet ready for prime-time. Banks was sacked six times in a 19-6 defeat. But the entire team responded well at home against lowly Cincinnati. Lewis got his first extended playing time and ran for 116 yards. The Bengals could must only four yards on the ground and Baltimore forced four turnovers. The result was an easy 37-0 rout and a 3-1 record as the calendar flipped to October.
The defense kept it going at lowly Cleveland. The Ravens rang up a 188-23 edge in rush yardage, with Lewis & Holmes splitting duties, and intercepted three passes. It was enough to get a 12-0 win as All-Pro kicker Matt Stover hit four field goals.
Baltimore got another chance on the prime-time stage, going to Jacksonville for Sunday Night Football. Here might be a good time to step back and explain that the Ravens and Jaguars were in the same division until the realignment of 2002. That division was the AFC Central, and it also included the Tennessee Titans, along with the three teams Baltimore currently shares the AFC North with (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati). There were three divisions in each conference, with three wild-card berths available for the playoffs.
So, in the rematch with the Jags, the Ravens won again and played much better defensively than they had back in Week 2. Even though they didn’t run the ball, and Banks was erratic, Baltimore forced six turnovers, didn’t allow a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter and won 15-10. Stover again delivered all the offense, with five field goals.
The I-495 Beltway Rivalry with the Washington Redskins was up next. The Redskins would finish 8-8, although they were a playoff contender in mid-October. In a defensive battle, the Redskins made the game’s biggest play, a fourth-quarter touchdown pass that ended the Ravens’ winning streak, 10-3.
Two key divisional home games were on tap and the offense continued to struggle. Tennessee, setting the pace in both the Central and the AFC overall, came in and won 14-6. Banks threw three interceptions and 36 minutes of possession time for Baltimore produced just a couple Stover field goals. Midway through the game, Billick went to Dilfer.
The quarterback change didn’t make an immediate impact. If anything it got worse. Another poor offensive game came against a much more mediocre opponent in Pittsburgh. Stover was the only offense and his two field goals came from 49 and 51 yards. The Ravens lost 9-6.
Baltimore’s promising start had now sunk to 5-4. Even more, the reader may have noticed a trend. We’ve now covered all five games played in the month of October, and the Ravens did not score a single touchdown. The greatness of this defense can be underscored by the fact that Baltimore still won two of these games and were competitive in all of them. But that didn’t change the fact the playoffs were in doubt, and no one had the Ravens on a list of Super Bowl contenders.
The drought lasted for another quarter at Cincinnati. But when the dam broke, the touchdowns started flowing. Dilfer threw three TDs in the second quarter, two of them to Sharpe. Lewis ran for 109 yards and Baltimore won 27-7.
Dilfer struck again in the first quarter against Tennessee, with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Ismail. Lewis ran for another TD and the Ravens took a 14-0 lead over the division front-runner. The Titans rallied to take a 23-17 lead, but a short TD pass from Dilfer to Patrick Johnson pulled out a 24-23 win.
A home date with the Dallas Cowboys was in the late afternoon national TV spot. Facing a Cowboy team having a bad year, Dilfer went up top to Ismail from 40 yards and hit Sharpe on a 59-yard TD pass. Lewis ran for 187 yards, the defense spun its fourth shutout of the year, 27-0.
Lewis enjoyed another huge day at home against Cleveland, with 170 yards in a 44-7 romp. The Ravens could go into a late bye week in early December sitting on a 9-4 record. They were within a game of the Titans in the AFC Central. They were atop of a four-team race for the three wild-card spots, a half-game ahead of the Denver Broncos and New York Jets, with the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills a game and a half back.
The week off got even better when the Colts and Bills both lost. Even though the Broncos and Jets both won, those three teams were at 9-4 and all with a two-game lead to get into the playoffs.
Baltimore hosted San Diego. The worst team in the league, the Chargers were quarterbacked by Ryan Leaf, who has become synonymous with “high draft pick bust”. A predictable 24-3 win was the result. A trip to Arizona to face another bad team resulted in a tougher game. The defense was its usual self, and Lewis for 126 yards, but there was nothing in the passing game. The Ravens still churned out a 13-7 win.
The playoffs were clinched. Tennessee had wrapped up the AFC Central, but Baltimore was still playing to get the 4-seed and a home wild-card game in the season finale. They were playing the Jets, who were fading fast and now needed to win this game to hold off the Colts for the final playoff spot.
New York jumped out a 14-0 lead, before the Ravens found their footing and got back to within 14-12. In the closing seconds of the first half, the Jets were on the doorstep, prepared to add to their lead. Then cornerback Chris McCalister picked off a pass and raced 98 yards to the house. In a stunning turn of events, Baltimore went to the locker room with the lead. Then Jermaine Lewis (not Jamal) returned two punts for touchdowns in the second half. The Ravens forced six turnovers in all. A game that saw them outgained 524-142 also resulted in a 34-20 win. The Jets were going home for the season. The Ravens would get to stay at home for the first wild-card game.
The last time the great sports city of Baltimore had hosted an NFL playoff game was Christmas Eve of 1977, a legendary double-overtime loss to the Oakland Raiders. This wild-card game with Denver would not be nearly as exciting, but it would be considerably more satisfying for the home fans. Jamal Lewis ran for 110 yards. Dilfer threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Sharpe led a 21-3 win.
It was time for Round 3 with the Titans. With the Ravens now on an eight-game winning streak, this divisional playoff game had a Super Bowl feel to it, even in the moment. Baltimore’s offense reverted to form—Dilfer only completed five passes. There was no running game. Tennessee held the ball for over 40 minutes.
But that defense…they kept delivering. The game was tied 10-10 going into the fourth quarter. Tennessee was lined up for a short field goal. The Ravens blocked it. It was returned 90 yards for a touchdown. Then Lewis came up with an interception and took it 50 yards to the house. The Ravens won 24-10.
They were on their way to Oakland to face the 2-seed Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. After a scoreless first quarter, Baltimore was backed up deep in its own end. Dilfer found Sharpe on a pass that could give the offense some room. It did a lot more. Sharpe raced the distance, a 96-yard touchdown pass.
It would have surprised no one to know that the defense already had enough points to win. They held the Raiders to 24 rush yards and picked off four passes, two by Starks. Linebacker Jamie Sharper intercepted another and had two sacks. Three more Stover field goals were just icing on the cake in a 16-3 win. Baltimore was going to the Super Bowl.
The last step for the city’s first pro football title since 1970 and their first major championship of any kind since the Orioles won the 1983 World Series, would be down in Tampa against the New York Giants. The Ravens came in as a three-point favorite.
New York was playing well, coming off a blowout win over Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game. But this was also not a great Giants team, underscored by the fact that even in that big win, they still came in as a home underdog. Now, they were dealing with the hottest defense anyone had seen in over a decade.
When Dilfer went 38 yards to Stokely for a first-quarter touchdown, the 7-0 lead seemed enormous. And it would get bigger. Stover added a field goal in the second quarter. The third quarter saw a bizarre sequence—Starks’ Pick-6 extended the lead to 17-0. Then the two teams traded kickoff returns for touchdowns. Three straight plays resulted in three straight TDs, none of them by the offense. It was a fitting conclusion to this 2000 Baltimore Ravens season.
They went on to add ten more points and win 34-7. Over the four playoff games, the defense allowed just one touchdown. Ray Lewis got Super Bowl MVP honors as the leader of this historic unit.
If we look beyond this season, Baltimore was now on the map as a regular contender and they really haven’t left. Billick made the playoffs three more times, coaching through 2007. John Harbaugh took over, and as of this writing in October 2022, is still there, regularly going to the playoffs and winning a Super Bowl of his own in 2012. And defense would remain the Ravens’ calling card in the years to come.