BALTIMORE — The Denver Broncos were stuffed, smashed, sacked and dismissed Sunday.
A Baltimore Raven defense that surged and swirled as fiercely as the bitter wind in PSINet Stadium held the Broncos without a first down in the first half and without a touchdown in the game for the first time in Denver playoff history as the Ravens took a 21-3 AFC wild-card victory that set up a showdown between the NFL's two best defensive teams next Sunday at Tennessee.
Still, the highlight that will be shown again and again was the twice-tipped, nearly intercepted pass that former Bronco tight end Shannon Sharpe turned into a 58-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
"I was just in the right place at the right time," said Sharpe, who wasn't the intended receiver. "Actually, I was in the wrong place at the right time."
Sharpe signed with Baltimore last off-season after 10 seasons and two Super Bowl championships with Denver.
"I was really a little nervous today. I wanted to do well and help my team win," Sharpe said. "I don't think they gave up on me. [Coach Mike Shanahan] knew I could still play but he didn't think I could play at the level to justify that kind of money. Maybe he was right.
"But for what the Ravens brought me here for--the playoff experience, the locker room leadership, I think that I've given them what they asked for."
Sharpe's play was spectacular, but the reason Baltimore won was a run-stuffing defense that held rookie Mike Anderson, the NFL's fourth-leading rusher, to 40 yards in 15 carries--a mere 2.7 average.
"Great defenses step up in the playoffs, and that's exactly what they did," said Shanahan, whose team entered the game with the NFL's second-ranked offense only to be held to 177 yards--233 below its average.
"When you win Super Bowls, I think you always put those defenses in an elite class," Shanahan said. "If Baltimore can do that, I think this will be considered one of the best of all time."
Linebacker Ray Lewis--perhaps the best defensive player in the NFL--and an aggressive defensive line took care of business with a little help from safety Rod Woodson, who came in on a blitz on one play and ended up dropping Anderson for no gain from behind.
"We don't believe in a running backs coming in here and pounding us," Lewis said.
Baltimore's Jamal Lewis--no relation--won the battle of rookie running backs, churning his way to 110 yards and two of his team's three touchdowns in 30 carries on a blustery day when it was necessary to run in order to win. Lewis scored on a one-yard dive and on a 27-yard run when he burst through a scrum and rambled the rest of the way.
Denver was forced to play without quarterback Brian Griese, whose status had been a guessing game all week after he re-injured the separated shoulder that kept him out of five games in the regular season.
"I could tell the latter part of the week that if we put him in there and he took a hit, I didn't believe he would survive that hit," Shanahan said. "So I didn't think it was in his best interest to put him in that situation. He wanted to play, but I really believe it wasn't the right thing to do."
Gus Frerotte had been fine as Griese's replacement--the Broncos had won four of the six games he started. But he wasn't very good Sunday, struggling to control snaps and battling temperatures in the low 20s and wind with gusts up to 30 mph.
He finished 13 for 28 for only 124 yards with one interception.
"I'm putting it all on me. I could have played better," Frerotte said. "It was pretty windy out there. I threw a couple of balls that were moving around. But we got behind the eight-ball and we had to throw it."
Baltimore's Trent Dilfer had to contend with the conditions too, but because of the relentless Jamal Lewis, Dilfer was asked to throw a mere 14 passes, completing nine for 130 yards and one touchdown, the fantastic play to Sharpe.
The pass, intended for Jamal Lewis, hit Lewis' hands and then went off defensive back Terrell Buckley, who almost made the interception but lost the ball as he was being tackled.
Sharpe caught it in midair and ran down the right sideline, picking up a tremendous block from fullback Sam Gash on linebacker Bill Romanowski--Sharpe's old yakking competition in Denver--en route to the end zone.
Dilfer watched the play unfold after he threw the pass and started running over with the intention of making a tackle on what he thought was an interception.
"I started after him and out of nowhere I saw Shannon catch it and then I saw Sam's block on the sideline and I just fell to my knees and said, 'No way.' It was just unbelievable."
So were the conditions on the field. There was no snow, just the wind and cold.
"It was the hardest I've ever played in, and I've played on some windy days," Dilfer said. "The wind was bitter cold and it was swirling. You never had a downwind throw. You always seemed like you were throwing the ball into the wind--either direction, either sideline.