Check out the No. 17 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.
The Ravens looked like they might be the worst team in football.
After an offseason salary-cap purge in which general manager Ozzie Newsome bid farewell to multiple starters and a couple future Hall of Famers from the Super Bowl XXXV championship team, the 2002 season couldn’t have started much worse on and off the field.
The young Ravens suffered a season-opening 10-7 road loss to a Carolina Panthers team that had gone 1-15 the previous year. The offensive output certainly wasn’t encouraging in third-year quarterback and former third-round pick Chris Redman’s first NFL start.
A few days later, sadness overcame the city as Baltimore Colts legend and football icon Johnny Unitas died of a heart attack on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. With Redman wearing black high-tops to pay tribute to the fellow Louisville product who had taken an interest in his football career, the Ravens were thoroughly embarrassed in a 25-0 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 2, the only time in team history they’ve been shut out at home.
Coming out of an early Week 3 bye, the Ravens were set to host the undefeated Denver Broncos — who had already knocked off defending NFC champion St. Louis and won at San Francisco — on Monday Night Football. Despite clamoring for more media attention the previous two seasons, even most Ravens fans dreaded their 0-2 team being on a prime-time stage for the football world to mock and ridicule.
The second quarter indeed proved to be embarrassing — for the Broncos.
Redman threw a touchdown pass to Todd Heap to give Baltimore a 7-3 lead on the second play of the period. Rookie Ed Reed blocked a punt that led to a short Jamal Lewis touchdown run to make it 14-3. And after a Matt Stover field goal, Ray Lewis intercepted a Brian Griese pass to set up another Redman touchdown throw to Heap with 18 seconds left in the first half, making it 24-3 in favor of the Ravens.
But none of that compared to what happened moments later as longtime Denver kicker Jason Elam lined up to try a 57-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. The attempt was well short and wide to the left as cornerback Chris McAlister fielded the kick in the end zone and initially played possum before taking off at his own goal line. With many not even realizing what was happening, McAlister sprinted down the sideline for a then-NFL-record 107 yards for a touchdown as over 69,000 shocked fans went bonkers.
Perhaps even more thrilling and memorable than the return itself, however, was the block delivered by Ray Lewis, who absolutely throttled Broncos linebacker Keith Burns at the 5-yard line. As the legendary John Madden so perfectly described it on the ABC broadcast, “That’s one that loosens your teeth!”
The monstrous hit symbolized the night for the shell-shocked Broncos as the Ravens earned their first win of the season in a 34-23 final, a game that also included Reed’s first career interception. The victory may not have been the harbinger of a magical 2002 turnaround, but it made clear the rebuilding Ravens were far from the NFL’s worst team as they’d go on to finish 7-9 in what was one of Brian Billick’s finest coaching jobs.
The incredible touchdown to close the half signaled better days were coming soon for a team with a very talented young core still intact, including the two men responsible for one of the most exhilarating plays in franchise history.
“That’s the way we practice it,” said McAlister about his record return after the game. “I watched and hung in the end zone and let my guys set up the wall. I got a hell of a block from Ray, and we went with the wall. All I saw was purple jerseys and green until I hit the end zone.”