KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Back in October, the Baltimore Ravens arrived at practice one day to find a surprise in their lockers. Coach John Harbaugh, fearful that the Ravens' black-and-white footwear didn't look intimidating enough, took it upon himself to have their cleats spray-painted jet black.
His players had a good chuckle. Some used markers to add another layer of customization to theirs, inscribing "Air Harbaugh" on the sides.
The message was clear: The big, bad Ravens do plenty of intimidating on their own, thank you very much, and it matters not whether their shoes are black, white, purple or fuchsia. The standard footwear returned the next day.
Gimmickry does not suit a Ravens franchise built around a simple principle for the last decade: inflict punishment. Simple though it may sound, Baltimore does it better than anyone, and its 30-7 dismantling of the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday afternoon's AFC wild-card game was Ravens 101: limit mistakes on offense, then play straitjacket on defense, a formula that's easy to envy and impossible to mimic.
"It's a culture," Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo(notes) said. "It's something bred in Baltimore. The Colts do it, and they're successful, but it's different than ours. We're toughness and defense and ball control. We're going to bruise you and bully you."
The Chiefs limped off the field at Arrowhead Stadium bruised, bullied and besieged, their first home playoff game since 2003 a disaster in every facet. They've now lost seven consecutive postseason games. In 1994, the last time they won a playoff game, Joe Montana was their quarterback. He turns 55 this year.
The Ravens played in Cleveland then. Over the last decade, they've won nine playoff games, and Sunday's looked an awful lot like the best of them: the Super Bowl in 2001, a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants.
Baltimore forced five Kansas City turnovers Sunday, the same number of balls they swiped against the Giants. The Ravens held the Chiefs to 161 total yards, only nine more than the Giants put up. And the only player left in the Ravens' locker room from that championship night saw those raw numbers and felt the raw energy exuded in such blowouts and could come to only one conclusion:
"That's championship-caliber football," linebacker Ray Lewis(notes) said. "Any time you can take that formula into any away stadium, you have a chance of winning. We have more turnovers than the other team, it's a fairly high percentage you'll be able to win."
Following a helter-skelter first half, the Ravens played the next 30 minutes as if they spent halftime getting jolted by jumper cables. First they stuffed Jamaal Charles(notes) on a fourth-and-1. Then Lewis popped rookie Dexter McCluster(notes) and forced a fumble. On the next drive, Dawan Landry(notes) picked off a lazy Matt Cassel(notes) pass. And had referees not invoked the tuck rule on the next play, during which Cassel got hammered and lost the ball, it would have been three turnovers in four plays for Kansas City.
"It was difficult, at that point, when things started to unravel," Cassel said. "It was one bad thing after another. Somehow you just have to try to stop the bleeding, and we weren't able to do that."
In the country's best barbecue town, the Chiefs were stuck pigs. By their last series, any semblance of an offense had vanished. They gained only 25 total yards in the second half. Charlie Weis heads to run the University of Florida's offense with this his last series as a Chiefs offensive coordinator: sack, incompletion, sack and interception.
Terrell Suggs takes down Matt Cassell for one of the Ravens' 3 sacks.
(Denny Medley/US Presswire)
It was Cassel's third pick on 18 attempts. During the regular season, he threw 450 passes and only seven were intercepted. So goes life against the Ravens, who feast on green quarterbacks much as their counterparts of the 2000 season did. Even as the names change – Rod Woodson and Peter Boulware and Rob Burnett and Chris McAlister(notes) and Tony Siragusa then, Ed Reed(notes) and Terrell Suggs(notes) and Haloti Ngata(notes) and Dawan Landry and Kelly Gregg(notes) now – the Ravens are the same vicious machine.
"It's the playoffs, man, and you've got to step it up," Redding said. "This team – it's a team, and we know what we have here. It's contagious."
So as Arrowhead cleared out following Willis McGahee's(notes) game-sealing, 25-yard touchdown run for the final tally – his mock tomahawk chop only added to the indignity – the 1,000 or so Ravens fans descended toward the bottom bowl of Arrowhead. Cornerback Josh Wilson(notes) encouraged them to cheer, and other players gave thanks, and Lewis stood next to Harbaugh on the sideline, his eye-black war paint as close to ostentatious as the Ravens get.
Afterward, Baltimore retired to its cramped quarters to celebrate before turning its attention to next week's game against the only team that comes close to matching its style: the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harbaugh handed the game ball to Reed, the future Hall of Famer whose younger brother is feared dead after leaping into the Mississippi River to avoid police Friday in Louisiana.
"My family kept me focused," Reed said. "My older brother called me and told me, 'Do what you do, handle your business. We'll take care of everything here.'
"It was just a matter of being around my second family and doing my job."
Nearly an hour after the game ended, Reed still held the ball. He caressed it with his thumb, spun it in his hands, massaged its leather. He played because his blood family wanted him to and his football family needed him to.
"We wanted to give him three hours of peace," Suggs said.
And they did. Amid the chaos for Kansas City, there was a sense of normalcy for the Baltimore Ravens. They stomped all over their opponent, leaving a footprint that needed no embellishment.