Just as Manchester United were written off as Premiership long-shots a few weeks ago, the Baltimore Ravens were being similarly dismissed as one-season wonders, unlikely to mount a successful defence of their Super Bowl title. The defending champions only claimed their play-off place in the final week of the regular season, but now that the knock-out stages have begun once again, the swaggering bullies of the National Football League are the team nobody wants to face.
"We got a ticket last week to the dance," explained their gargantuan defensive tackle, Tony Siragusa. "We perform at the dance. We don't go out there and stand against the wall. We dance, baby!" On Sunday night, the Ravens thrashed the Miami Dolphins, the 20-3 scoreline barely reflecting their superiority.
Baltimore's success last season was built around a power running game and a defence that yielded little. Miami's only points came from Olindo Mare's 33-yard field goal early in the first quarter, and the Dolphins only managed that because Baltimore's Jermaine Lewis fumbled the game's opening kick-off, giving Miami an excellent field position.
After that, the home side never came close. The quarterback, Jay Fiedler, compiled a mere 122 passing yards, while the running game yielded a paltry 46 yards in total. The Ravens had stated their aim of running the ball, and they did so to deadly effect. The running back Terry Allen led the way with 109 yards of the team's tally of 226, the most yardage Miami have conceded all season. Allen scored on a four-yard run in the first quarter, following an awesome 17-play, 90-yard drive. In the second half, the quarterback Elvis Grbac engineered an even more impressive 99-yard drive, which culminated in a five-yard touchdown pass to Travis Taylor.
The Ravens reward is a visit to Pittsburgh on Sunday. Two more victories, and they will be back in the Super Bowl. "These are the January Ravens," said their tight end, Shannon Sharpe. "The September, October, November and December Ravens, we got rid of those guys."
Brett Favre is a virtuoso quarterback no matter what the month, and he was at his irresistible best in leading the Green Bay Packers past the San Francisco 49ers, 25-15. In their long history, the Packers have never lost a post-season game at home, but that record looked in jeopardy as the gritty 49ers led 7-6 at the interval.
Favre, though, took control in the second half, throwing a touchdown to Bubba Franks, and masterminding a drive which led to Ahman Green's nine-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes remaining. The veteran quarterback allowed an early interception, but finished with a pair of touchdowns.
"You take away the interception, and I don't think a quarterback could have a better game than that," said his coach, Mike Sherman. "He took total control of that football game."
Another veteran, Jerry Rice, was the star of Oakland's 38-24 humbling of the New York Jets on Saturday. The 39-year-old former 49er caught nine passes, one a touchdown, for 183 yards. A solo performance of similar authority that day came from Philadelphia's quarterback, Donovan McNabb, in his side's 31-9 demolition of Tampa Bay, a result which leaves the status of the Buccaneers head coach, Tony Dungy, far from certain.
Washington's coach, Marty Schottenheimer already knows his fate: he has been sacked after one season despite winning eight of the last 11 games. Steve Spurrier, who the Redskins tried to lure from the University of Florida before turning to Schottenheimer, was named as his replacement last night in a five-year deal thought to be worth more than £17m.Reuse content