DENVER - For quarterback Elvis Grbac, the comeback validated his resiliency.
For the Ravens' defense, the victory signified its blistering return.
Redemption reigned supreme yesterday as the Ravens reclaimed their place among the AFC elite with a gritty 20-13 victory over the Denver Broncos before 75,082 at Invesco Field at Mile High.
Grbac delivered a pointed message to the Ravens (2-1), overcoming a costly interception on his first pass by threading two touchdown throws in the second half.
The Ravens' defense delivered an all-too-familiar statement of defiance to the Broncos (2-1), making the NFL's second-ranked offense look ordinary. The Ravens surrendered a paltry 228 yards of total offense, harassed Denver quarterback Brian Griese with five sacks and forced three turnovers on the Broncos' final nine drives.
"The character that some of you thought had left, evidently hasn't," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "For this team to fight today, that's championship-caliber mentality. That's what I count on from this team."
Grbac, who had three interceptions and a fumble last week, received a haunting flashback on the game's first play when his rushed throw was intercepted by Denver tackle Chester McGlockton. That mistake turned into a 7-0 Broncos lead 20 seconds into the contest, and Grbac realized his response would prove critical.
Never panicking, Grbac tied the score at 13 in the third quarter with a perfectly timed 20-yard toss to Qadry Ismail in the end zone and made the game-winning throw by zipping a 3-yard pass to a covered Travis Taylor with 8:51 left.
"I knew I had to make it up somehow," Grbac said. "That's what a quarterback needs to do. He's got to step and say, 'I've made a mistake and now I owe one for the team.' I think I did that and I think our offense responded."
The Ravens' defense flexed its overwhelming might, recapturing that edge from last year's championship season, which included a 21-3 first-round playoff victory over Denver.
A Broncos offense that had averaged 34 points and 427 yards in two wins, couldn't run (61 yards) and the NFL's top-rated passer couldn't hide. In addition to the sacks, Griese was hurried 11 times and had two passes batted down.
The defense's timing again remained perfect. In the fourth quarter, the Ravens made a successful fourth-down stand and ended Denver's final drive with an interception by safety Corey Harris.
"This is what we needed to get this defense back on track," defensive end Michael McCrary said. "This is a huge game for us."
The Ravens were gasping for answers in Mile High's thin air from the start.
On the first snap, Grbac threw off his back foot with stunting Denver defensive end Kavika Pittman running untouched through the middle. But it resulted in Grbac's fourth interception of the season, as McGlockton returned the pick to the Ravens' 3-yard line.
The Broncos converted on the next play, with Griese hitting tight end Dwayne Carswell for the touchdown. "I had pressure in my face and I knew Shannon was coming open," Grbac said. "I was trying to get rid of the ball more than anything else. I didn't even see Chester McGlockton."
Denver's lead grew to 13-6 early in the third quarter after the teams traded field goals and before the Ravens' defense made its move.
Cornerback Duane Starks came up with the Ravens' first turnover in the opponent's territory this season, becoming the first to pick off Griese in 109 attempts. The interception at Denver's 24-yard line led to the Ravens tying the game at 13.
Three plays after the turnover, Grbac threw a pass over the shoulder of Denver cornerback Denard Walker and into the waiting hands of Ismail for the 20-yard touchdown with 5:42 left in the third quarter. The Ravens had flooded the one side with three receivers, leaving Ismail isolated on the back side with no safety help for Walker.
"The good teams make people not want to do that," Ismail said. "Today, it was great that I was able to get off the line cleanly and aggressively enough to where Elvis saw it, made one heck of a throw and we came away with six."
The defense dug in and held the Broncos to three-and-out on consecutive series. That set the stage for the finishing touch by Grbac.
The game-winning 70-yard drive was fueled by Grbac hitting tight end Shannon Sharpe on receptions of 17 and 11 yards. Both of the catches - one of which converted a third-and-six situation - occurred in front of the Broncos' bench, allowing Sharpe to flash a wink to his former teammates.
"I said, 'Yeah, you all remember me? I used to do this right across the street [at Mile High Stadium], huh?' " said Sharpe, who had not played in Denver since playing for the Broncos from 1990 to 1999.
At the Broncos' 37, the Ravens ran the ball five times, including a 20-yard dash by backup Jason Brookins. Grbac then capped the series, rolling to his right, where he darted a pass to Taylor.
Taylor, who had Walker clinging to him from behind, made the catch to put the Ravens up for the first time at 20-13 with 8:51 left in the game.
"You learn from a guy like Joe Montana, who threw it to Jerry Rice for how many years," Grbac said. "I don't see anybody stopping that play for some time, especially when you have man-to-man coverage. You've got to have a strong wide receiver and you've got to have a quick wide receiver and Travis just made a great play."
The defense then closed the door on Denver by stopping the Broncos on fourth-and-one on the Ravens' 19, and Harris intercepted Griese's throw at the Ravens' 27 to seal the win.
"If our offense gives us a lead, this defense is frightening," Mc- Crary said. "That's just the facts."
A week after the shocking 21-10 loss at Cincinnati, the Ravens rediscovered a leader on offense and re-established their reputation on defense.
"We learned some things about ourselves," Sharpe said. "I told the guys today we should be [ticked] off because we let one slip away last week. But I guarantee you, from here on out, if you beat the Ravens, you beat a damn good football team."
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