Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis dangled a few carats last week, and his defense latched onto them like tipped passes.
After being shown their leader's Super Bowl ring during a midweek speech, the Ravens responded yesterday with a dazzling performance, smashing the San Francisco 49ers, 44-6, before 69,549 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Unlike last week's miraculous comeback against the Seattle Seahawks, the most lopsided victory in Ravens history was won on might. And that might was reminiscent of the Ravens' glory days.
Pressuring quarterback Jeff Garcia and manhandling his receivers, the Ravens picked off a season-best four passes - all of which came off deflections - leading to 24 points.
When Lewis finished his interception return by high-stepping into the end zone, the Ravens were off to the races with a 24-6 halftime lead. And there was no slowing a defense that extended its streak without allowing a touchdown to 82 minutes, 44 seconds.
Seizing the moment was the rallying cry from Lewis, the perennial Pro Bowl linebacker who had told teammates a few days ago that they have more talent than the 2000 Super Bowl team.
"That definitely set our eyes on the prize," said cornerback Gary Baxter, one of eight new starters since the dismantling of that Super Bowl defense. "I think that woke a lot of guys up."
Before the Ravens can contend for the prize, they likely must first capture the AFC North crown.
The Ravens (7-5) can take a significant step toward their first division title Sunday with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals, who stayed tied with the Ravens for first place in the AFC North by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday.
Since falling to the Bengals six weeks ago, the Ravens have been quietly yearning to get Cincinnati on their home turf.
"Now we can focus on Cincinnati," said Lewis, who made 18 tackles. "Everybody else is out of the way. Let's deal with it."
If it's how the Ravens dealt with the 49ers (5-7), they will rely on an electrifying defense and an efficient offense.
The story line of the game was established on the opening drive, when Garcia's first pass hit one of receiver Terrell Owens' hands and ricocheted to linebacker Ed Hartwell. The 26-yard return placed the Ravens at the San Francisco 30-yard line; from there, Jamal Lewis needed three carries to reach the end zone.
The 49ers cut the lead to 7-3 and then took over at the Ravens' 30 after quarterback Anthony Wright fumbled a snap. But the defense didn't yield a first down - Baxter perfectly timed a breakup of a third-down pass to Owens - and San Francisco had to settle for a 40-yard field goal.
The Ravens wouldn't let San Francisco cross their 43 in its final 10 drives.
"There was a lot of talk about how we played last week," Baxter said of the defense allowing five passing touchdowns. "Coming back from Seattle, we wanted to come out and make a point. It couldn't have been a better point."
The points came in a flurry as the Ravens expanded a 7-6 lead by scoring 17 points in 85 seconds just before halftime, beginning with a 28-yard field goal at 1:57 that was set up by a 75-yard kickoff return by Lamont Brightful.
The Ravens' next drive started at San Francisco's 49 after a 15-yard facemask penalty on Brightful's punt return. Two plays later, rejuvenated receiver Marcus Robinson turned a near interception into a touchdown, cutting in front of cornerback Rashad Holman and dashing up the middle for a 38-yard score.
"Our mentality was to come out and prove that last week wasn't a fluke," said Wright, who followed his career-high effort by going 14-for-25 for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
Fourteen seconds after the fifth Wright-to-Robinson touchdown connection of the season, a hurried Garcia threw a pass that nicked receiver Cedrick Wilson off the back hip and fell to Lewis. The 29-yard return marked the first regular-season touchdown off an interception in Lewis' prolific career.
No one was spared in this unmerciful run. Attempting to jump on Lewis, Hartwell inadvertently knocked line judge Carl Johnson under the chin with his shoulder pad. Johnson left with a concussion, and the injury is not considered serious.
"It's like a bad nightmare," Garcia said. "When it started to go downhill, it went downhill fast. We couldn't find a way to stop the steam."
That steam was generated by the Ravens' defensive heat.
A fourth-down stand near the end of the third quarter gave way to a 47-yard field goal by the nearly automatic Matt Stover.
Then, Baxter intercepted a pass that bounced off the helmet of a San Francisco lineman and placed the offense just outside the red zone. After a 15-yard pass to Alan Ricard, Wright connected with Terry Jones for a 6-yard touchdown.
Wright's sixth touchdown pass in two games staked the Ravens to a 34-6 bulge 1:15 into the fourth quarter.
A week after rallying the Ravens from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit, the offense was given a much easier road by its defense and special teams. The Ravens' first six scoring drives averaged 25.3 yards.
"It set the tone for the game," Wright said of the interceptions. "The defense gave us good position and we went about our business and did what we were supposed to do."
But the offense deserves credit for cashing in on the opportunities (scoring on half of its 14 possessions) and helping the Ravens reach 40 points in consecutive games for the first time in the team's eight-year history.
When asked about the offensive production during the past two games, coach Brian Billick said of his sometimes touchdown-troubled attack: "With 24 points off turnovers, even I cannot screw that up. This is a complete game for us. It's the kind of game we're capable of having. It's what we're going to need the rest of the way to get done what we want to get done."
That would mean a return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Judging by yesterday's method of winning, the Ravens will again get there with defense.
The Ravens didn't allow a touchdown for the third time this season. They held the NFL's 11th-best offense to 264 total yards, 10 first downs and 27 percent third-down efficiency (4-for-15).
Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, completed just two passes to wide receivers and connected on one throw over 9 yards.
"We were still mad about what happened last week," Hartwell said. "We gave up 41 points and that's not Ravens football. We don't give up 20 points. To us, it was personal."
The way the Ravens are playing, a strong playoff run now has a certain ring to it.
"A lot of players are hungry for it," Baxter said. "For [Ray Lewis] to be the leader and to show people that ring, that makes you even more hungry."