Rusty Ravens Outlast Pesky Browns, 23-16
TEAM OUTLASTS CLEVELAND TO GO 3-1
By Joe Platania
(Look for Ravens Report's extensive "Leftovers," our usual postgame notebook, Friday morning.)
M&T BANK STADIUM, BALTIMORE -- The only AFC North Division team to which Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco have never lost is the Cleveland Browns.
The team against which Ray Rice has his highest career rushing yardage total is the Cleveland Browns.
The team against which Ray Lewis has his most career sacks, and Ed Reed has his most career interceptions, is the Cleveland Browns.
And the only team in the AFC that came into Week Four winless was -- all together now -- the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns have been the perfect cure for what ails many teams, but none more so than the Ravens, who got to play a division game at home -- two scenarios under which they have unbeatable lately -- against the woebegotten Cleveland team.
But coming off a tight, emotional win against the New England Patriots on Sunday, the Ravens proved to have a little hangover and a lot of difficulty with Cleveland, even while administering a 23-16 defeat in front of 70,944 rain-soaked fans during a nationally televised Thursday night game.
The win wasn't the pretty, picture-perfect blowout many Ravens fans were expecting, probably because the home team took the victory by ugly means.
With 11 penalties, the Ravens (3-1) committed a double-digit number of infractions for a second straight week. With 27 rushes and 50 pass attempts, they did not achieve ideal offensive balance.
And, until they converted several key third-down situations during the second half -- four of their first six, to be exact -- they couldn't move the ball consistently against a surprisingly tough Browns defense.
In fact, the Browns (0-4 for the first time since 2009) had a chance to tie the game and send it into overtime as time wound down, but three straight end-zone passes went incomplete.
A fourth, brought on by Paul Kruger's roughing penalty, was also unsuccessful as time ran out, giving the Browns 10 straight losses -- one shy of the team record set from 1974 to '75 -- and 11 straight AFC North defeats.
Despite the late nail-biting, the Ravens won their 13th straight home game and 10th within the division, both the league's longest current streaks.
Quarterback Joe Flacco (28-for-46, 356 yards, touchdown, interception, four sacks, 83.2 rating) had his second career 300-yard day against the Browns, the first coming three years ago to the day. He also has more than 15,000 yards for his career.
"That's the National Football League," Harbaugh said. "It's tough. The Cleveland Browns are a very good football team. That's life in the AFC North. That's the way it goes.
"Sometimes, you win and you don't look good, but you win anyway. ... You hope they're all easy. But they're not. This isn't college football. Every team in the league is very good."
On this night, the Ravens -- who now will get a few days off before beginning preparations for the next game, Oct. 7 in Kansas City (1 p.m.; WJZ-TV, WIYY-FM) were good only when they had to be, starting early during the third quarter.
BOLDIN UPS THE ANTE
As the rain that began during the second quarter started to intensify, so did the Ravens after a rather lackluster first half.
And they did it behind a player who has had a rather flat season so far, veteran receiver Anquan Boldin (131 yards, nine catches), tied for third on the team with 10 catches going into the game. He caught a perfect back-shoulder throw for 18 yards to midfield and leaped for a 21-yard catch against Dmitri Patterson's usually tight press coverage.
What made the latter play important was that it came on third down, and the Ravens had gone 1-for-7 on third down during the first half. It also helped keep alive what turned out to be a 13-play, 89-yard drive.
"My number was called tonight," Boldin said. "We knew coming in that it was going to be a real tough game coming off of a short week and having a division opponent come in.
"We knew we were going to have a battle, and I think we were prepared for it."
Despite his alleged lack of speed, Boldin followed his next catch with a spin move to the sideline and a run down to the 2-yard line, a 21-yard gain that set up Flacco to roll to his right, cut inside and score for his first rushing touchdown of the year and restore the Ravens' nine-point lead.
The Ravens then tried to turn it up on the defensive side of the ball, but hard-hitting safety Bernard Pollard was cited for hitting a defenseless receiver, moving the ball into Ravens territory. From there, rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden tried to find Jordan Norwood down the seam at the goal line, but Lardarius Webb tipped the ball away.
But, from 51 yards away, Phil Dawson hit his 11th straight field goal try against the Ravens (28-for-30 lifetime, his best against any opponent) to cut the lead to 16-10.
Back came the ultra-creative Ravens, using a 17-yard throw to Vonta Leach, a one-cut up-the-gut Bernard Pierce 21-yard run -- accounting for nearly half of his 48 yards -- and a third-and-3 Torrey Smith (97 yards, six catches, touchdown) catch to get down to the Browns' 18.
A sack, a false start -- one of several the Ravens incurred during the game -- and an illegal-use-of-hands call set up a third-and-31 at the 39, which was too far to convert. To make things worse, Justin Tucker's 47-yard field-goal try was wide right, his first miss in nine chances this year and the first miss by any of the NFL's three rookie kickers in 24 attempts.
Weeden (25-for-52, 320 yards, interception, sack, 59.8 rating) then drove the Browns back into Ravens territory and tried to find Travis Benjamin along the sideline, but cornerback Cary Williams -- who usually makes a habit of playing off receivers -- read the play well and picked off the ball, running it back for a 63-yard touchdown to give the Ravens their biggest lead, 23-10, late during the third quarter.
It was Williams' first career pickoff and it came against a quarterback in Weeden who was tied for the league lead in pickoffs with six before the game.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Williams said. "I was glad to be in position and to read the play."
Still, Weeden's 300-yard game marked the first time in team history the Ravens have allowed 300 or more yards to three straight passers, having done the same against Philadelphia's Michael Vick and New England's Tom Brady. In 1996, Denver's John Elway and St. Louis' Tony Banks -- who later became a Raven -- turned the trick during consecutive weeks.
But if the home team had trudged its way through the second half the way it did the first, the night could have been a lot more interesting than many observers expected.
BROWNS DROP CHANCES;
The Browns, averaging a respectable 4.5 yards per carry through three games, tried to exploit the Ravens' vulnerable run defense right from the start when rookie Trent Richardson (47 yards, 14 rushes, touchdown; 57 yards, four catches) slammed through the middle for a 7-yard gain. Weeden then tried to stem the Ravens' pass rush with a quick slant to Greg Little (77 yards, four catches) for 7 more.
But Little is known for dropping passes -- the Browns were tied for the league lead with 10 going into the game -- and a subsequent sideline throw bounced off his hands, forcing a long-yardage situation, which Kruger put to bed by tipping away a sideline pass for Chris Ogbonnaya and forcing a punt.
As much as the Ravens wanted to break out on top early to dictate tempo the rest of the night, they couldn't quite do it right away. Two deep passes for Smith were well-covered and a Michael Oher holding penalty -- his first of the year -- stopped the possession.
The Browns then turned to return specialist Josh Cribbs to contribute on offense. Despite rushes by Webb and Ray Lewis on third down, Weeden found Cribbs -- who has two of his 11 career scores against Baltimore -- with a 9-yard pass and a first down at the Browns' 34.
But a third-and-12 pass to tight end Jordan Cameron went right through his hands despite his leaping attempt, and the Browns had to give the ball away again.
But the Ravens, the team with the second-most points in football (99) and the best red-zone percentage (75 percent) looked even more feckless on offense -- perhaps symptomatic of the short week -- as an illegal-formation penalty and a false start on rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele followed a Smith end-around.
Those plays, and Ray Rice's 8 yards during his first three carries, were particularly disturbing -- especially on a night when all-time leading rusher Jamal Lewis was inducted into the Ring of Honor -- considering the Ravens have averaged more than 160 rushing yards per game against Cleveland, with a current streak of 100 or more during 13 consecutive games.
But it took the Ravens' punt-coverage unit -- which, along with the kick-coverage team, ranks among the league's top 10 after a subpar 2011 -- to make the game's first big play.
Cribbs had returned a Ravens punt 14 yards, one above his average, when linebacker Dannell Ellerbe leveled him, knocking him cold momentarily when his helmetless head hit the turf. He fumbled and Jameel McClain recovered for the Ravens at the Browns' 40.
Cribbs later got up and walked to the sidelines, albeit in a woozy state, before being escorted back into the locker room, never to return to the game. But the Ravens, switching to the no-huddle, were determined to make Rice put the Browns in a trance.
A screen pass to Rice (49 yards, 18 rushes; 47 yards, eight catches) gained a first down at the 29 before Smith dove for a 12-yard catch at the 17. Rice then dashed inside the 10 with a short pass and it seemed the Ravens had the Browns right where they wanted them.
But when Flacco tried to find a double-covered Boldin in the corner of the west end zone, Browns linebacker Craig Robertson picked it off to end Flacco's streak of 125 straight red-zone passes without an interception, the last one coming in December 2009, at Green Bay.
Buoyed by the takeaway, Cleveland continued to show promise offensively. But it also proved to be its own worst enemy, and the Ravens slowly took control after a dead-even first quarter.
Richardson, the Browns' leading receiver coming into the game with 11 catches, got open in the left flat for an 18-yard gain before breaking off a slick one-cut run for 11 yards up to midfield. But stalwart left tackle Joe Thomas was called for holding Kruger.
Little allowed yet another pass to go through his hands before Courtney Upshaw defended Weeden's third-down hitch throw to Norwood (56 yards, four catches) -- active for the first time this year.
Flacco, with a league-high 19 completions of 20 or more yards coming into the game, then tried to stretch the defense with a beautifully lofted 39-yard pass to Tandon Doss and a 34-yard bullet to Torrey Smith.
It looked as though the Ravens would blow yet another chance when Dennis Pitta false-started and a Rice reception was stuffed for a loss. On top of that, a steady rain began to pelt the stadium, but Flacco regrouped and ended the 85-yard drive when he zipped an 18-yard pass down the middle to Smith for a 6-0 Ravens lead.
But, for the first time since a Monday-night game in Cleveland three years ago, a Ravens point-after touchdown went awry. Punter Sam Koch mishandled Morgan Cox's snap, so Tucker never got to kick the ball. Steven Hauschka's fateful 2009 attempt was blocked during a "Monday Night Football" showcase.
Cleveland handed the Ravens another break when a Browns coverage man was blocked into Jacoby Jones, setting up the home team at their own 41. Despite the tight coverage of him earlier, Smith got free for a 15-yard slant down to the Browns' 30.
Smith then tried to get open in the end zone against the league's best press-coverage corner, the Browns' Patterson, targeted just twice in 26 snaps with no completions allowed. He blanketed Smith well, forcing the Ravens to settle for Tucker's 45-yard field goal and a nine-point lead.
The Browns were still in the game, even after five straight punts in as many possessions -- including two three-and-outs -- with no drive lasting more than 17 yards. And when a Koch punt went out of bounds at the Browns' 6, it looked as though the visitors would get stifled again.
But Little jump-started an 11-play, 94-yard drive when he beat a pressing Williams off the line and outleaped him for a 43-yard catch to the Ravens' 39. Missed tackles by Lardarius Webb and Albert McClellan resulted in a 12-yard gain before Richardson bulled his way down to the 20.
Weeden then saw an edge rush coming before firing a pass to Benjamin for first-and-goal at the 1. Richardson then took a pitchout and beat McClain to the pylon to cut the Ravens' lead to two points.
But that score could only stem the Ravens' tide as it rose -- literally and figuratively -- as the night wore on, inevitably drowning the valiant Browns in its wake.
Posted Sept. 28, 2012