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Erased Super Bowl XXXV: Baltimore Ravens 34 New York Giants 7
Super Bowl XXXV featured two teams that were not on anyone’s radar when 2000 began. The New York Giants had won just one playoff game since Bill Parcells left the team a decade earlier. Fourth-year head coach Jim Fassel had compiled a 25-22-1 record in three seasons and looked to be one more mediocre year from unemployment. They had a collection of solid players on defense, but with journeyman Kerry Collins at quarterback and a collection of unknown offensive skill players, the Giants were expected to be nothing more than another also-ran in the NFC. Instead, they shocked everyone by finishing with a 12-4 record and the top seed in the NFC. In the playoffs, the Giants proved skeptics wrong by beating the upstart Eagles 20-10 before destroying the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship game. The Giants were unexpectedly in the Super Bowl.

Perhaps even more unexpected was the team awaiting them: the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens had only been a team for about 9 weeks when the NFL awarded Super Bowl XXXV to Tampa, FL. The former Cleveland Browns had largely been forgotten once they moved to Baltimore, posting just a 24-39-1 record in their first four seasons. However, their poor performance allowed them to quietly assemble some of the best young talent in the league, particularly on defense. After moving to Baltimore in 1996, the Ravens' next four years of first round draft choices were future Hall of Famers T Jonathan Ogden and LB Ray Lewis, four-time future Pro Bowler Peter Boulware, and Super Bowl starting cornerback duo Duane Starks and Chris McAlister. While no one expected much from the Ravens in 2000, they had some young talent that had the potential to deliver. What they delivered was a 12-4 record and one of the best defenses in NFL history. The Ravens allowed just 10.3 points per game, which is the fewest points allowed in a 16 game season. They had the best run defense, second best total defense, and forced 49 turnovers – 5 more than the next closest team. The only question mark was their lackluster offense, but it turns out they didn’t need an offense. The Ravens dominating defense somehow took it to another level in the playoffs, allowing just 16 total points in three playoff wins. The Ravens shockingly won the AFC and formed the other half of this unlikely Super Bowl.

Going into Super Bowl XXXV, the expectations were for a low scoring slugfest featuring two of the best defenses in the NFL. The Over/Under was set at 33 points, tied for the lowest in the Super Bowl history. Somehow, the two teams hit the over, but that doesn’t mean this game had a lot of action. While Baltimore’s offense played unimpressive mistake-free football, the Ravens defense dominated. They opened up a 17-0 lead in the 3rd quarter after a Trent Dilfer touchdown pass and an interception return for a touchdown by Duane Starks. The Giants responded when Ron Dixon returned a kickoff for a touchdown to close the gap to 17-7. New York’s excitement was short-lived as the Ravens star returner Jermaine Lewis returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown as well. Baltimore ended up winning 34-7 in a completely one-sided game. The Ravens exceptional defense held the Giants to just 2.76 yards per play and forced five turnovers. 

I used to think Super Bowl XXIX was the worst Super Bowl ever, but at least that had a great team from a legendary franchise playing at its best. This had a great defense carrying an okay offense to a win over a mediocre opponent in a dreadful game. This is probably as bad as it gets. If this isn’t the worst Super Bowl, it’s still the most depressing. The game is bad, the teams are uninteresting, and the whole production felt like such a letdown from the year before. Super Bowl XXXIV was one of the greatest games ever played. Rams MVP QB Kurt Warner threw a dramatic 73-yard touchdown with minutes to play to break the Super Bowl passing yardage record and take a 23-16 lead. The Titans engineered a dramatic drive that fell short as WR Kevin Dyson was stopped at the 1-yard line while lunging for the end zone as time expired. The drama was everything the Super Bowl is all about. Heck, the game was everything America is supposed to be about. The commercials for Super Bowl XXXIV featured numerous new “dot-com” internet companies that were representative of the late 90s rags-to-riches economy. The Rams followed a similar story, going from 5th place to the title in just one year. Fast forward to a year later and many of those dot-com companies had already gone out of business, the stock market had crashed, and the Super Bowl had one boring low scoring team dominating another boring low scoring team with unglamorous hard work. Who wants that? Why couldn’t we just go back to the year before?

The Switch: 2000 St. Louis Rams for 2000 New York Giants
The 2000 St. Louis Rams were one of the strangest teams in NFL history. In the offseason, Head Coach Dick Vermeil retired, becoming just the fourth Super Bowl-winning coach not to return the following season. Mike Martz, the architect of the Rams great offense, was named the new head coach. Their season started routine enough for a defending Super Bowl champion, as they won their first six games. But if you looked closer, something strange was happening. Their “Greatest Show on Turf” offense was somehow even better than they were the year before, but their defense was suddenly as bad as any in recent history. Nearly every game for the 2000 Rams turned in to a wild shoot out more familiar to arena football. Their offense couldn’t be stopped, but their defense couldn’t stop anyone. Despite losing reigning MVP Kurt Warner for 5 games, St. Louis became the first team in NFL history to surpass 7,000 yards of total offense in a season. When Kurt Warner did play, he averaged a mind-blowing 9.9 yards per pass attempt. The only other quarterbacks in history to do that all played before 1956 when passing was all about throwing down the field. Running back Marshall Faulk scored an NFL record 26 touchdowns and won the league MVP Award. Wide Receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce each made the Pro Bowl after having 1,400+ yards each. St. Louis’ 540 points scored were the 3rd most in league history. Unfortunately, their defense surrendered 471 points. That is the 7th most ever. The six teams who surrendered more points had an average record of 2-14. Somehow, the Rams went 10-6 and made the playoffs as the 6th and final seed. They may not have been the best team in the league, but in 2000, the NFL had no dominant complete teams. Any team with a historically great offense that can score at will on anyone will always have a puncher's chance. 

The real 2000 St. Louis Rams lost in the Wildcard Round to the New Orleans Saints 31-28. To make this new Super Bowl a reality, we need to find a way for them to win three road games – a rare feat in NFL playoff history. The New Orleans game would be quite easy to change. St. Louis’ offense struggled early, allowing their awful defense to get torched, and the Rams found themselves down 31-7 with 11:57 to play in the 4th quarter. Then, the Greatest Show on Turf finally awoke. They scored 21 unanswered points and pulled to within three with 2:36 remaining. The Rams forced a three and out and were going to get the ball on a punt after the 2:00 warning. However, Rams WR Az-Zahir Hakim muffed the punt, the Saints recovered, and the Rams chance at repeating was lost. Had Hakim fielded the punt, the Rams likely at least force overtime. They perhaps win the game outright in regulation. They had complete momentum and likely would have won without that fumble.

Next up would be the number one seeded New York Giants. As discussed, the Giants were no ordinary number one seed. They had the 5th best defense in the NFL, but they were middle of the road against the pass. As everyone had in 2000, the Giants 13th ranked offense would have put up points on St. Louis. However, the Rams offense had already shown they could score on the Giants. With backup quarterback Trent Green (who admittedly is about as good as a “backup” can be in the NFL) the Rams handily defeated the Giants in New York 38-24 in November. With Kurt Warner back under center, there is no reason to think they couldn’t put up big points again. Although, with their bad defense, they would have to play mistake-free football to avoid giving the red hot Giants too many chances to outscore them. Let’s say St. Louis does just that and moves on once more. 

The NFC Championship game would have likely been a matchup with the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome. With the Rams beating the Saints in the Wildcard round, the Philadelphia Eagles go to Minnesota in the Divisional Round instead of New York. The Eagles would have had a better than average chance to beat the Vikings, but Minnesota has a slight edge with their elite offense and homefield advantage. The Vikings/Rams matchup would have the potential to be the highest-scoring game in championship history. Minnesota was very similar to St Louis. They had the 5th best offense in scoring and total yards, but a terrible defense ranked 24th in scoring and 28th overall. Also, the teams had squared off in two shootouts near this time. In December, the Rams beat the Vikings 40-29 in St. Louis. They had also beaten the Minnesota 49-37 in the 1999 Divisional Playoffs. This game would come down to who commits the fewest turnovers and who has the ball last. If the Rams are tied or down one score in the 4th quarter, their offensive stars rise up and make the plays necessary. St. Louis beats Minnesota in another shootout and wins the NFC for the second straight year to move on to Super Bowl XXXV. 

Improved Super Bowl XXXV: Ravens vs. Rams - Evaluating the Matchup
There may not have been a matchup between two more extreme teams in NFL history. Many Super Bowls featured a matchup between the league’s best offense and the league’s best defense, but there is a strong argument to be made that, at the time, this would have been the greatest offense of all-time vs. the greatest defense of all time. Those are the kind of matchups that a sports fans' dreams are made of. 

However, this game could have ultimately come down to what happens when the other units are on the field. The Ravens had the 16th ranked offense and a passing game in the bottom 10. St. Louis had given up the 7th most points in history and had the 23rd ranked total defense. It would have been the matchup of the resistible force versus the moveable object. 

St. Louis would also have been playing for history. A win would make them the 7th team to win back to back Super Bowls and would likely vault many of their Pro Bowl-caliber offensive stars into Hall of Fame status. Not only would they be one of the greatest offenses ever, but they also would have beaten one of the greatest defenses ever while dragging their own horrible defense along for the ride. They would have been the team to prove “Defense Wins Championships” to be a myth. 

This game is very hard to call. I am confident the Rams offense was one of the best in NFL History. With the same parts, they were great in 1999 and would be great in 2001. However, it’s hard to know if the Ravens defense was as good as their statistics. While still very good, there are some red flags. The 31-team NFL that existed from 1999-2001 was very strange, especially for AFC Central teams. Once the Cleveland Browns were added in 1999, the AFC Central had 6 teams. 10 of those teams’ 16 regular season games were played within the division. While the Ravens' record-setting 165 points allowed is very impressive, it loses much of its luster when you realize the 2000 Tennessee Titans had the 3rd best scoring defense in the 16 game era (11.9 ppg) playing the same opponents. This is due in large part to the abysmal Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, who each had a scoring offense ranked in the bottom ten in NFL history. Baltimore allowed 14 points in four games against those two teams. The Ravens eye-popping stats were built on bullying terrible teams. In the regular season, they played just two teams in the top half of the NFL in scoring (Jacksonville and Tennessee) and lost two of those four games. In the playoffs, they did play the two highest-scoring teams in the AFC, Denver, and Oakland, and defeated them by scores of 21-3 and 16-3. However, the Broncos played without Pro Bowl starting Quarterback Brian Griese and Raiders star quarterback Rich Gannon was injured in the second quarter and played sparingly after that. Was Baltimore’s defense really good enough to shut down the Rams?

On the other side, St. Louis’s poor defense had been matched up all season with some of the highest-scoring teams in the league. Half of their games were against teams in the top ten in scoring. And while that’s no excuse for giving up 471 points, it at least provides a partial explanation for their struggles. Although, you could flip the argument and say each of these teams were ranked that high because a visit from the Rams would produce an average offensive output of 29.4 points.

Ultimately, this game would have come down to turnovers. The Ravens forced the most and committed the 9th fewest, while the Rams were 20th and 24th in those respective categories. When St. Louis committed one or fewer turnovers, they were 7-0 and scored an average of 39.6 points per game. If they committed two or more, they were 3-6 and scored just 25.2 points per game. It’s hard to believe St. Louis would commit fewer than two turnovers against that tough Ravens defense. Baltimore’s offense would likely hit some big plays through the air, as everyone had against the Rams. They also would have controlled the clock with Jamal Lewis and their 5th ranked rushing attack. Add a big play or two from Jermaine Lewis in the return game and the Ravens would have scored enough to beat the Rams. If St. Louis played a clean game on offense, they could have won, but many of history’s top offense vs. defense matchups turn messy. The defense usually wins those matchups and Baltimore wins here. It’s too bad for the Rams that they had such a putrid defense, as they could have won back to back championships and be better remembered for their greatness. But instead, the Ravens still get their first Super Bowl, Brian Billick still gets to be an annoying commentator, and we all get to have enjoyed a classic Super Bowl XXXV battle instead of living in a world where Kerry Collins has started as many Super Bowls as Dan Marino. 

Baltimore 28 St. Louis 24
MVP: Jamal Lewis

Tomorrow in our Number 2 entry we…did somebody say Dan Marino?…

Eric Drews
Green and Gold Forever

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