To fully appreciate the dominance of the Ravens defense, you must weave through Baltimore's crowded, triumphant locker room. Go past Ray Lewis' and Terrell Suggs' stalls and make your way to where Willis McGahee is sitting with a milewide smile. While most running backs would expect a series of questions about their offense's performance, McGahee is fielding queries about the greatness of the guys across the room. And he's loving every minute. "The defense!?" McGahee responds. "Shoot, we love the defense. Many times, we look for the defense to bail us out. "They can score all the touchdowns as far as I'm concerned."
There are times when that seems possible — like Sunday.
The Ravens' 27-9 victory over Miami in an AFC wild-card game at Dolphin Stadium was a defensive masterpiece, and free safety Ed Reed made many of the brilliant brushstrokes. His two interceptions, one returned for a 64-yard touchdown, helped beat a club that tied a league record for fewest turnovers in a 16-game season with 13. Miami had five giveaways including four interceptions, a team postseason record, by the usually efficient Chad Pennington.
The Ravens play the No. 1 seed Titans on Saturday in Nashville, and the defense again will take center stage. Perhaps no one can speak to its impact like the team's offensive players. They often find themselves in awe, so much so they don't really mind whether they get the credit.
"I don't care," said rookie Joe Flacco, who had a quarterback draw for a 5-yard score in the fourth quarter. "It's awesome. Any time those guys go out and play the way they did, they deserve to be talked about. We win as a team. We have their back, and we know they have our back. It's fun to play with those guys. We're so used to it that we kind of expect that stuff on every drive. Somehow, they do it. They just keep getting us the ball. It's pretty crazy what they do."
Of Reed, receiver Mark Clayton said, "League MVP — no doubt. … He deserves all the accolades."
The Ravens' first-round draft pick in 2002 made the day's most memorable play in the second quarter. He made an over-the-shoulder interception, turned 180 degrees and crisscrossed the field twice, reaching the end zone 64 yards later.
"It felt like track, like the 200 (meters)," said the former Miami Hurricanes track and field standout. "I don't think I recovered until the third quarter."
It was the sort of catch Reed has made for years. An inchlong scar on his forehead is evidence. He suffered a deep gash as a child after colliding with a neighbor's mailbox hauling in a similar pass.
"I was a receiver running a long bomb. I was 8 or 9," said Reed, 30, the regular-season league leader with nine interceptions.
The memory of Sunday's two catches will be more lasting. The sixth-seeded Ravens are one win from the AFC title game. And the biggest reason is their championship defense.
The Dolphins can attest.
"When you get down, you start to play in their hands because they can start (applying) different pressure, they can start taking chances that they normally wouldn't take, and that's kind of what happened," Pennington said.
The Dolphins improved 10 wins after going 1-15 in 2007. But their expectations grew with their win total, making the loss tough to cope with.
"Everybody is so emotional right now," linebacker Joey Porter said. "We weren't just happy to be here. We were planning on moving on."
The Ravens and their defense had other ideas.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]