Crossing paths in a dimly lit corridor and standing at the doorstep of history, Ray Lewis and Brian Billick got ready for the biggest game of their lives by getting defensive. It was 15 minutes before the kickoff of Super Bowl XXXV when Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens' unrepentant middle linebacker, and Billick, the team's bombastic coach, held a rare, private conversation that underscored a week's worth of public pronouncements. Standing outside the Ravens' locker room at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Lewis said to Billick, "They don't understand, do they?" and the coach shook his head no. Naturally, Billick understood all that they couldn't comprehend—they being the New York Giants, the 3,300 credentialed members of the media and, to be fair, most of the U.S. sporting public. "We'll show 'em," said Billick.
We now understand that Billick, Lewis and the rest of the Ravens had a right to be arrogant. In annihilating the Giants 34-7, Baltimore's third NFL franchise won its first Super Bowl in the way Lewis and Billick had said they would all along, with a counterintuitive blend of a statistically challenged offense and a defense whose passion sucks the will out of disbelieving opponents. So go ahead, America, and get defensive: A year after the St. Louis Rams appeared to have turned the NFL into a futuristic video game, the AFC champion Ravens stomped all over the Giants to win an old-school NFL title clash.
Never mind that the cocky team won. Forget, for a moment, that Art Modell, an NFL owner for 40 years who broke a million hearts in Cleveland when he moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1996, is enjoying his first taste of Super Bowl glory. Some fans may revile the Ravens, but the Ravens love one another, and it shows in the way their proud defensive players race to the ball in waves. In allowing New York a mere 152 yards and no offensive points, Baltimore was led, as always, by Lewis, who, upon earning Super Bowl MVP honors, completed one of the most remarkable one-year turnabouts the sports world has known.
Consider that 52 weeks earlier, in the wee hours following Super Bowl XXXIV, Lewis was in the midst of a bloody brawl in which two men were knifed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub. Facing murder charges that were dropped when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing justice, Lewis vowed to channel his anger and frustration into a ferocious championship drive. While he consistently alienated outsiders during pre-Super Bowl interviews by bristling at any notion of remorse—at one point going so far as to portray himself as a Christ figure—Lewis spoke loudest of all with Ins captivating play. In the end he was the Giants' cross to bear.
"To be here after what happened last year," Lewis said from the victor podium, "it's a feeling you can't describe." Later, he added, "I don't mean to disrespect anyone, but we're definitely the best defense of all time. The thing is, the Giants didn't know. You just don't know until you play us, but our defense is a buzz saw."
That buzz saw is one sharp instrument with which Lewis doesn't mind being associated—and, perhaps, a metaphor even Billick might find to his liking. A former San Francisco 49ers public relations employee who now fashions himself a full-fledged media critic, Billick spent much of the week castigating reporters for what he called their "absolutely deplorable" coverage of Lewis's legal troubles. The tone of his statements came off equal parts contentious and condescending as Billick willfully cast himself as an antihero. Five days before the game, as he sat in his room on the 12th floor of the Ravens' hotel, Billick addressed his behavior thusly: "I believe that the people who know me have a solid respect for my abilities and the way I conduct myself, and whether they think I'm egotistical or arrogant is secondary."
Besides, Billick continued, his statements were subject to the scrutiny of a far more stringent body, a four-woman task force made up of his wife, Kim, daughters Aubree (16) and Keegan (11), and his mother, Mildred. "My daughters' sole purpose is to make sure Dad's head doesn't get too big," Billick said, laughing. "If I say something they think is self-serving, they'll let me know."
After finishing 8-8 in 1999, his first year as Ravens coach, Billick approached the 2000 off-season intent on becoming more of an overseer and less involved with the offense. He helped convince the Ravens' players that solidarity was a cure-all, a philosophy that came in handy a month into the season, during one of the more stupefying stretches the NFL has seen. Baltimore went more than five games—21 quarters—without scoring a touchdown, one quarter shy of the longest streak since the 1970 merger. The Ravens lost three of the five games to fall to 5-4, and during that stretch Billick replaced quarterback Tony Banks with Trent Dilfer, who'd had six mostly messy years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That decision had fans and players around the league rolling their eyes. Just as Billick had to tone down the offense, Dilfer had to embrace the unflattering role of a quarterback charged with not making mistakes.
Both men, however, have a brazen streak, and they were stirred by the Giants' dominant defensive performance in their 41-0 win over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. Already basking in his return to Tampa—he received a warm welcome from Bucs coach Tony Dungy and his staff during his unannounced visit to Tampa Bay's practice facility—Dilfer was alarmingly amped as the Super Bowl approached. "There's even a strip joint with a WELCOME BACK TRENT sign—and I've never been to a strip joint in my life!" Dilfer said last Saturday, as he sat at a hotel bar near Tampa's West Shore. "People here have been great, and we're so ready. Brian's done a great job of creating a bunker mentality, and we have a perfect combination of looseness and focus."
When it came time to talk strategy, Dilfer anxiously tapped the bar and said, "Right now [ New York defensive coordinator] John Fox is in his room trying to figure out ways to make me look like an idiot—and I love that. Believe it or not, we think we can gash them with speed, like the Rams did in the regular season, because getting up on guys quickly is what our receivers do best. We love the matchups involving [ Ravens wideout] Brandon Stokley, so I'm going to get him the ball."