For example, the previous week Baltimore had a mere six first downs in its 24-10 divisional playoff victory over the Tennessee Titans, and Dilfer completed only 5 of 16 passes. However, he made smart plays at key times, notably a 51-yard hookup with Sharpe that set up a game-tying touchdown. Several times Dilfer helped the Ravens to escape from deep in their own territory, thus keeping the defense from having to play on a short field. He missed only one snap after absorbing a vicious helmet blow to the chest by Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck in the third quarter. Most important, Dilfer, who averaged nearly 15 interceptions per season from 1995 through '99, avoided making any big mistakes. (He has just the one interception in 48 postseason pass attempts this year.)
"The Titans' whole mentality is to win the turnover battle," Dilfer explained last Saturday. "They're coached to expect it and thrive on it, and when the game gets further and further along and that turnover still hasn't come, they're crushed. There are tons of layers like that in football that people don't see."
Late in 1997 Dilfer's detractors never saw the eight painkilling shots he had injected into his badly sprained right ankle or the eight Vicodin pills he swallowed daily—all so that he could continue not only to play in games but also to practice. The Bucs were on the verge of their first playoff appearance since '82, and Dilfer wasn't about to desert his teammates. He made 70 consecutive starts (second only to the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre among quarterbacks at the time) before Dungy benched him in the seventh game of the '99 season. When Eric Zeier took the first snap in Tampa Bay's 20-3 loss to the Detroit Lions, Dilfer's stomach knotted up. "It crushed me," he says, "because that streak was my ace in the hole. You could call me a bad athlete, call me a choker, but no matter what, you had to say I was a tough player who was always there for my team."
Not much has come easily to Dilfer, who says he's selfish by nature. He embraced Christianity as a sophomore at Fresno State, but his quest to sublimate his ego—at least on the field—has played out like some sort of heavenly black comedy. The NFL is full of quarterbacks who say they'll do anything to win, but few have had to do so with everyone repeatedly doubting their abilities.
Last Saturday, as he sat on a bench outside the Ravens' hotel overlooking San Francisco Bay, Dilfer pondered his curious place in the football pantheon. "I'd rather figure out the best way to win football games than be the player of the week, and I really mean that," he said. "There are guys who can do both, but I'm definitely not one of them. I want my genius to be that I was willing to do anything and endure anything to get what I wanted. If I do, it will challenge people to decide if quarterbacks truly are measured by whether they win or lose."
The Bay Area horizon was as clear as Penelope Cruz's skin, and Dilfer pointed across the water to Oakland, where the Raiders and their vaunted history awaited. "I'm so psyched that Jim Plunkett will be at this game," Dilfer said, referring to the man who quarterbacked the Silver and Black to Super Bowl victories after the 1980 and the '83 seasons. "He's the player I think that I'm most like: a huge character guy who struggled early, never quit and could care less if he's mentioned on the list of alltime greats. All he did was win."
Then Dilfer took a deep breath and pointed southward toward Aptos, his hometown 49 miles down the coast. An athletic standout and party animal in high school, Dilfer didn't achieve inner peace until he earned a scholarship to Fresno State and struck up a friendship with a swimmer named Cassandra Franzman. They went out once as freshmen, and she fell asleep twice on the date. But eventually their shared spiritual growth led to love, marriage and three children, daughters Madeleine (four) and Tori (almost two), and son, Trevin (three).
Trent, a onetime scratch golfer, said he has reduced his life to football and family. "I was lying in bed with Cass four nights ago, totally exhausted, and she was helping me study my plays," Dilfer said. "When I went to turn off the light, she said, 'Look, no matter what happens on Sunday or beyond, I want you to know that no one can work any harder than you do as a football player, a father and a husband.' " He looked at the water, paused for several seconds, then stared down at his Quicksilver jeans. When he looked up again, he was crying. "She didn't know how much it meant to me that she said that," he whispered, and then his voice trailed off.
Dilfer cried even more heartily on Sunday afternoon as the final seconds ticked away and teammates offered hugs, thanks and congratulations. The moment belonged to him as much as to anyone, and with the Tampa angle waiting to be pounded into public consciousness, it was his chance to thump his chest and yell, How do you like me now?
There was a time when Dilfer couldn't have resisted such a self-congratulatory setup, but now restraint came easily. He flashed back to all the occasions when he'd been humbled—the benching, the belittling, the beatings—and thanked God for the mettle and perspective mat had come of it all. "If you're willing to face adversity and let it hit you in the face, it'll make you stronger, as a football player and as a person," he said after the game. "You just fight and fight and fight until they won't let you fight anymore."