Veteran tight end breaks open game for Ravens
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Shannon Sharpe stared into the center of the Black Hole, and he smiled.
After catching a short pass from Trent Dilfer early in the second quarter and running 96 exhausting yards with it, Sharpe stopped in front of the infamous bleachers behind the Coliseum's west end zone. As he caught his breath, he enjoyed the first big celebration in a victorious afternoon for the Baltimore Ravens.
"Sometimes all you need is that one big play, and we got it," Sharpe said. "You spend the whole game waiting for the opportunity to make one play."
The Raiders' ubiquitous fans responded to Sharpe's posing with a shower of beer cups and ice, but they couldn't undo what Baltimore accomplished with one spectacular play. The Ravens broke open a scoreless game with their only touchdown, propelling them to a 16-3 victory in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
Take that, Glad-A-Raider. In your face, Violator. The Raider Nation's most raucous supporters had nothing to say.
The longest scoring pass in NFL postseason history wasn't designed to go more than 15 yards. The Ravens were backed up to their 4 on third down, and the short route was only intended to push Baltimore away from the goal line.
"When you throw a slant like that on a third-and-long, you hope a guy can catch it and run for yardage," Baltimore head coach Brian Billick said. "He's the option on that play. When he goes 80-some yards, he's the first option."
With his team going nowhere on offense, Oakland coach Jon Gruden decided to gamble that his defense could force the action the way it did the previous week in the Raiders' win over the Dolphins. Tory James returned an interception 90 yards for a score to jumpstart Oakland's 27-0 victory.
So the Raiders blitzed Dilfer, but they were too slow to reach him. Dilfer said he actually threw the ball to the wrong place, but Sharpe adjusted.
One step before making the catch, Sharpe surged forward to put distance between himself and Oakland safety Marquez Pope, Dilfer's college teammate. Sharpe combines speed and size like few tight ends, and he simply outran the Raiders' secondary - even speedy Charles Woodson.
"That was one big play that never should have happened," Woodson said. "We let a guy run 90-plus yards for a touchdown. That's ridiculous on the defense's part to allow that."
Near the goal line, Patrick Johnson began shoving his teammate toward the end zone -- and nearly tripped Sharpe instead of helping him.
"I consider myself pretty fast, but I [felt] slow," Sharpe said. "It took a long time to get to the end zone. I didn't realize it was that far. Everybody was like, 'Do you know how far you ran?'"
Dilfer knew. More than half of his 190 yards passing came on that short throw.
"We called that play just to get out of the hole," Dilfer said. "I like any safety on Shannon Sharpe. He promised me at the beginning of the game he would make some plays, and he never lets me down."
It takes courage to stare down the Raiders' fanatical fans, but it's even tougher to make a boast stand up against Oakland's powerful home-field advantage. The Raiders comfortably won their final six regular-season games at the Coliseum before blasting Miami a week ago.
But Oakland's crowd lost its frenzied edge after Sharpe's catch. By the fourth quarter, fans were booing the Raiders' staggering offense, which was humiliated by Baltimore's defense. Afterward, Sharpe was boasting again.
"Well, we struggled, but we didn't look as bad as the other offense that we played," Sharpe said.