Ray Lewis knows a championship defense when he sees one. Now the Kansas City Chiefs do, too.
Lewis and Baltimore’s tough and savvy defense overwhelmed the young Chiefs on Sunday, sacking Matt Cassel three times and forcing five turnovers in a 30-7 victory in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Chiefs (10-7), who won the AFC West with a six-game improvement and took pride in not beating themselves, managed just 25 yards in the second half.
”To set records is one thing,” said Lewis, who forced a fumble and had a sack in the second-half dismantling of the Chiefs. ”To come out and play the way we’ve played in the third quarter all year and the last two weeks, just giving up seven points to opponents, that’s championship-caliber football.”
Baltimore (13-4) broke open a close game with a touchdown and two field goals off turnovers in the second half. Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes, Billy Cundiff kicked three field goals and Willis McGahee closed out the scoring with a 25-yard run in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens will head to Pittsburgh next Saturday, renewing one of the league’s fiercest rivalries. They split their season series with the Steelers, with each team winning on the other’s home field.
Kansas City finishes the season saddled with an NFL-record seventh straight playoff loss, dating back 17 years.
”Our defense played phenomenal,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said. ”They came out in the second half and gutted that offense. It was impressive. It’s impressive to be a part of this.”
On a raw, windy afternoon, with temperatures hovering in the low 20s, Flacco and Cundiff took advantage of three interceptions by Cassel and fumbles by Dexter McCluster and Jamaal Charles to pull away. Pro Bowlers Lewis safety Ed Reed led the charge.
”You just come in and make up your mind when things start going your way they start going your way,” Lewis said. ”We knew that this was a very tough place to come play. They have a very talented ball club. We were able to show them and that’s kind of how we are built. We are built for 60 minutes.”
In an emotional postgame locker room, the Ravens gave the game ball to Reed. On Friday morning, his family said they believe a young man who jumped into the Mississippi River trying to elude police was probably his younger brother, Brian Reed. The search for a body at the scene in Louisiana has been called off.
”Just being there for strength, respect for what’s going on,” Reed said of his teammates he calls his second family. ”They just gave me the team ball for my family.
”My family kept me focused. My older brother called me and told me, `Do what you do. You handle your business, we’ll take care of everything over here.’ ”
It was a week of heartache for the Ravens in more ways. Earlier in the week, the sister of linebackers coach Dean Pees died.
”Any time you lose someone like that, it just draws every one of us closer,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. ”Not to put Coach P’s business out there, but he lost his oldest sister this week, too. So, as a team, we had to balance that out. We had to channel our emotions.”
The Ravens led 10-7 in the third quarter when Kansas City lost a fourth-and-inches gamble and then collapsed, quickly.
Dawan Landry stopped the play, throwing Charles for a 5-yard loss. On the next play, Tamba Hali drew a 15-yard penalty for a late hit on Flacco and the Ravens drove in for Cundiff’s 29-yard field goal, making it 13-7 with 6:36 left in the third.
A moment later, Lewis put a jarring hit on McCluster, knocking the ball loose. Chris Carr recovered on the Kansas City 17, leading to another 29-yarder by Cundiff.
Then, a harried Cassel was intercepted by Landry, who angled left to the 21. An illegal block on Baltimore’s Cody Redding pushed the Ravens back 10 yards, but Flacco made sure to convert this opportunity into a touchdown.
On second down, he connected with McGahee for 20 yards, then followed with a 13-yard completion to tight end Todd Heap, who had 10 catches for 108 yards. On second-and-4, Flacco fired it over the middle to Anquan Boldin in the back of the end zone, beating cornerback Brandon Flowers and giving the Ravens a 23-7 lead.
”We turned the ball over, and that’s not characteristic of us,” Pro Bowl left guard Brian Waters said. ”When we had to make plays, we weren’t able to. When they had to make plays, they did. You can’t turn the ball over.”
With a little more than four minutes left in the game, McGahee went over the middle on fourth-and-1 and broke into the secondary, dragging a tackler with him into the end zone at the end of a 25-yard run.
Charles gave the Chiefs a 7-3 lead in the first quarter with a 41-yard scoring run after Tamba Hali sacked and stripped the ball from Flacco, recovering it himself.
The Chiefs’ postseason drought stretches to the AFC championship game at Buffalo in January 1994. The losing streak includes four different coaches.
”It was a tough one,” Chiefs coach Todd Haley said. ”I thought we got great experience for a lot of young guys that hadn’t been part of this.”