BALTIMORE – Life returned to normalcy for the Baltimore Ravens, a football team accustomed to certain traditions when squaring off with the overmatched Cleveland Browns.
Although the Ravens nearly squandered a commanding lead and transformed a routine game into something of an adventure in the fourth quarter, they generally thrashed the Browns on Christmas Eve to go undefeated at home this season.
Star running back Ray Rice dominated the open field against slow-footed linebackers during a 20-14 victory before 71,083 at M&T Bank Stadium as they defeated the Browns for the eighth consecutive time and finished 8-0 at home for the first time in franchise history.
"I've never been perfect at home in 16 years of football," said middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the lone remaining player on the roster from the Ravens' inaugural team in 1996. "And that's amazing because as good of teams as we've had here, we've always found a way to lose one or two here or three. This year, we really made our focus on taking care of home."
It wasn't a game with many style points and the final score was closer than the Ravens (11-4) would have preferred, but it accomplished their goal. Now, they're one win away from clinching the AFC North division title and earning a first-round bye as at least the second seed in the AFC.
"A little bit, I was definitely disappointed out there because it's not big things that we didn't do," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It was just little things that we didn't do very well in the second half, and it could've gotten us beat.
A crucial special-teams breakdown and dropped passes from the Ravens contributed to the Browns' comeback attempt.
The Ravens finally closed the Browns out after allowing 14 unanswered points in the second half after building a 20-0 lead when inside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo shoved running back Peyton Hillis out of bounds on fourth-and-five to allow them to take over on downs late in the fourth quarter.
Earning a first down on the ensuing Baltimore possession, Flacco drew rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor offsides on fourth down with a hard count that got the big first-round draft pick to jump on fourth down. Then, Flacco kneeled down three times to end the game.
"It was the first hard count and we stayed onside," Taylor said. "The second time, I just jumped. Of course you feel bad, but you just got to move on."
That allowed the Ravens to finally put the Browns away after allowing an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown to Josh Cribbs and a touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore.
"Come on, you guys can figure it out," Flacco said when asked if there was an actual play called. "The play clock was at two seconds, and we hadn't snapped the ball yet. I don't know if I've ever been in position for that to happen. It's never worked."
Successfully defending their territory six days after a humbling road setback against the San Diego Chargers that temporarily dropped them back in the AFC North and playoff standings, the Ravens are now well-positioned as long as they beat the Cincinnati Bengals on the road to conclude the regular season next week.
Since the Pittsburgh Steelers also won Sunday, the Ravens have to beat the Bengals to assure themselves of hosting an AFC divisional round playoff game.
"Sometimes, we say it's not perfect and it's not pretty," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Our guys found a way to win the game at the end, and that's what counts. Thank you to our fans, you are a huge part of an undefeated season at home."
If the Ravens beat the Bengals and the New England Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills, the Ravens would clinch the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
"It's going to be a war, man," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "They're fighting for their life. We're fighting for the division. So, it's going to be a playoff game."
Not surprisingly, little was different from the Ravens after the belt-whipping they delivered to the Browns in Cleveland three weeks ago.
After rushing for a career-high 204 yards in the first meeting, Rice rendered the Browns powerless to stop him again.
He rushed for 87 yards on a mere 23 carries, but his most impressive play was in the second quarter when he ran a wheel route and left former University of Maryland middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson flatfooted.
Rice curled out of the backfield and Jackson was unable to match his speed and acceleration as he hauled in a perfectly-timed spiral from quarterback Joe Flacco. Jackson could only watch as Rice scooted behind him into the end zone.
The 42-yard touchdown up the right sideline staked the Ravens to a 17-0 advantage and gave Rice his 13th score of the year.
"I saw man coverage from the get-go," Rice said. "I said, ‘If I get a step on him, I got him.' It was a great call by Cam Cameron and great execution by me and Joe."
An opportunistic defense stymied the Browns immediately.
With starting quarterback Colt McCoy sidelined with a concussion suffered weeks ago on an illegal hit by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, his replacement had issues against the NFL's third-ranked defense.
Telegraphing a throw intended for wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, Seneca Wallace didn't connect with his target.
Instead, the football fluttered into the hands of cornerback Lardarius Webb as he swooped in front of Massaquoi for the interception.
The Ravens capitalized on the turnover five plays later.
The Ravens got down to the Browns' five-yard line a few plays after rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith drew a 60-yard pass interference penalty on Cleveland free safety Mike Adams when he made contact with the second-round draft pick downfield.
And then Flacco darted a throw over the middle to tight end Ed Dickson for a five-yard touchdown pass as he adjusted to a throw slightly behind him.
The victim in this case was Jackson, allowing his first of two touchdowns.
"It's just a read play on the goal line," Dickson said. "I give him a little move and then go over top of him. Joe made a good read and put it on my back shoulder. I think we're getting into a pretty good rhythm."
The Ravens expanded their lead to 10 points when newly-acquired kicker Shayne Graham booted a 48-yard field goal.
Graham was signed Wednesday as an injury replacement for struggling Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff, who was scratched due to a left calf injury.
Cundiff has missed 3 of 5 field goals in December.
In his second injury stint this season after previous work with the Miami Dolphins, Graham made both his field goal tries as he also connected on a 43-yarder in the third quarter.
The Browns prevented a shutout in the third quarter on an electrifying punt return for a touchdown against the beleaguered Ravens special teams.
His 84-yard jaunt up the middle marks the11th of his career, and it's the third return the Ravens have allowed this season for a score. That hasn't happened in nine years.
"He made us pay for it," Harbaugh said. "It was not good coverage, it was not a good punt and we have to do better than that. That's really what got them back in the game."
Flacco was intercepted by cornerback Sheldon Brown in the end zone on a deep ball intended for veteran wide receiver Lee Evans, who was unproductive as he started with Anquan Boldin out after undergoing knee surgery to repair a slightly torn meniscus.
Evans has only four receptions this season after being acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.
He was targeted four times, but caught no passes.
"I put it all on my shoulders," Evans said. "I wasn't where Joe wanted me to be. When you don't make the best of opportunities, you can't really earn that trust. Until we get it corrected, it's just going to be like it is."
Following the interception, the Browns drove 80 yards on a dozen plays and scored on Wallace's touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore from six yards out in front of strong safety Bernard Pollard.
Although the Ravens were unable to sustain their momentum in the second half and got pounded on the ground by Browns bruising running back Peyton Hillis for 112 yards on 24 carries, the outcome of the was fairly safe until a late charge.
Now, the Ravens close out the regular season next week on the road at Paul Brown Stadium where they could go undefeated in the AFC North for the first time in franchise history.
They'll have some healing up to do before kickoff since kick returner David Reed is out for the season with a major knee injury, offensive guard Marshal Yanda has bruised ribs and cornerback Cary Williams and backup linebacker Dannell Ellerbe both left the game with concussions.
The Browns couldn't get out of their own way at times, utilizing questionable play-calling from coach Pat Shurmur.
Overall, the game was tougher than it should have been like many AFC North clashes.
"It went all the way to the 12th round and we did it," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We had to go to scorecard, they weren't going to let us knock them out. They fought. It just goes to show if we want to go on a championship run we've got to be tight, offense, defense alike."
BALTIMORE – It was a costly game for the Baltimore Ravens, suffering four injuries during their 20-14 win over the Cleveland Browns on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
That includes offensive guard Marshal Yanda suffering bruised ribs and leaving the game and kick returner David Reed suffering a season-ending injury as it's believed he damaged his anterior cruciate ligament.
Plus, starting cornerback Cary Williams and backup inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe sustained concussions and didn't return.
"I made a cut on the kickoff return, and it buckled," said Reed, who had just regained the primary kickoff returner job. "My knee buckled. It's frustrating, but God's got his plan for me and I've just got to let him work his magic."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh confirmed that a magnetic resonance imaging exam will be conducted today to determine the extent of the damage to Reed's knee.
"David Reed's injury looks serious," he said. "That did not look good."
Meanwhile, it's unclear if Yanda will be available for next week's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I don't know if it's broken yet or not," Yanda said. "We'll find out. I can't breathe real well right now. I can't do deep breaths.
"It's not really feeling any better. I'm on some pain pills right now to slow it down a little bit. Deep breaths are real painful. I was cutting No. 71 [nose guard Ahtyba Rubin] and he was trying to come across my face and I took a knee right in the ribs."
Five-time Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode filled in for Yanda at right offensive guard.
"I got in and you do what you need to do," Gurode said. "Marshal and Matt Birk and everybody kept talking to me on the sidelines. I just went in there and played."
Neither Williams or Ellerbe were able to return, and the NFL observer in the press box was paying close attention to the diagnosis with the renewed emphasis on concussion protocol.
"Dannell, I think looks pretty decent," Harbaugh said. "I don't have a report yet on Cary."
SPECIAL TEAMS STRUGGLING:
The Ravens' special teams units hadn't allowed three returns for a touchdown in nine years.
Now, they've gained that dubious distinction as they surrendered an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown to Browns star return man Josh Cribbs in the second half.
It was the third punt return of Cribbs' career that's gone for a touchdown, his 11th return overall for a score.
There were missed tackles from reserve safety Haruki Nakamura and punter Sam Koch, but there were also breakdowns in lane discipline.
"He's a great player, a great returner with great vision," linebacker Albert McClellan said. "We let him get too much and he saw the hole up the middle and hit it. We need to look at the tape to see if we're spread out too much over the middle or had too many on the left side."
Outside linebacker Edgar Jones said that the punt team got too bunched up on the left side.
"We squeezed too far on the left hash," Jones said. "The margin for error on special teams is so small. We can't give up plays like that. We can't give up touchdowns.
"It might be guys not staying in their lanes. We all have to be accountable for it. We can't give up touchdowns. That was the reason why they kind of got back in the game."
The Ravens intended to prevent Cribbs from having a running lane.
Instead, they gave him a prime one to bust through.
"We wanted to pin the ball over on the left sideline, and we didn't," Harbaugh said. "We kicked him a ball that we don't kick very often. I think when you give a returner like that an opportunity like that in space, in those kind of conditions, he made us pay for it.
"It was not good coverage. It was not a good punt, and we have to do better than that. That's really what got them back in the game."
CAUGHT IN THE WEBB:
Cornerback Lardarius Webb anticipated a Seneca Wallace pass in the first quarter, accelerating underneath a throw intended for wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi for an interception.
It led to the Ravens' first touchdown.
"I ended up in the right spot again," Webb said. "It was great. It felt great to make the play for the team, especially my first game back."
Due to a left toe injury, Webb was limited to a handful of plays in the nickel package last Sunday in a 34-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
He returned to the starting lineup Saturday.
"I don't think I aggravated it," Webb said. "It is a little sore. I just could not leave my team hanging. Not that the other guys couldn't do a great job, because they could, but I just felt like I would be leaving them out. So, it was important for me to be out there."
Webb said he's slowly getting back to his previous form. He leads the Ravens with five interceptions.
If I was my old self, I could run across here," said Webb, who still uses a protective walking boot. "I'm not there yet. I'm still progressing throughout the week doing cautious things ."
CUNDIFF GETTING HEALTHIER:
Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff expressed optimism that he might be healthy enough to kick next week.
Cundiff missed this game with a left calf injury as Shayne Graham kicked field goals from 48 and 43 yards.
"I'm hoping, I really am," Cundiff said. "It was tough not to play. At the same time, I've got to recognize what the big picture is. I'm definitely hoping to be back next week We'll base that on how it goes with the trainers
"You just don't want a setback. If I only had to kick for 30 minutes and didn't have to kick off, it wouldn't be a big deal. But we don't play that way. I've got to kick off and kick off well Until I can do that and do that well, that will be the determining factor on making it back. It feels much better than it did last week."
Cundiff, who has battled the leg injury for weeks and hit only 2 of 5 field goals in December, was impressed with Graham's contribution.
"He's a good kicker," Cundiff said. "I was happy he was able to come in and contribute. We knew we had a guy who could do the job and he was the difference in the game."
EVANS SHUT OUT:
It wasn't a sterling game for veteran wide receiver Lee Evans as he started with Anquan Boldin out after undergoing knee surgery to repair a slightly torn meniscus.
Targeted four times, Evans failed to catch a single pass and doesn't appear to have much timing with quarterback Joe Flacco. An end zone pass thrown in his direction was intercepted by cornerback Sheldon Brown.
"I've just got to be where he wants me to be when he wants me to be there and to make the plays when I get a chance," Evans said. " We didn't do it, I didn't do it. It's very disappointing, because the amount of talent we have out here at the wide receiver position warrants a lot more than that.
"So it's very disappointing, and we know we've got to play a lot better if we expect to be the type of offense that we want to be. I put it all on my shoulders. Obviously, I wasn't where Joe wanted me to be. When you don't make the best of them, you can't really earn that trust. Until we get it corrected, it's just going to be like it is."
The Ravens also struggled with dropped passes as tight end Ed Dickson had at least two drops. He also caught a touchdown pass, though.
"The first one, I should've just fell with that one because it was a little back shoulder and it was wobbling a little bit," Dickson said. "If I could have any one back, it would be the second one because I had room to run on the back end. Those are the plays you think about all week.
"It takes away from my touchdown. That's not the type of player I want to be. I want to finish everything. That's uncharacteristic of myself, the dropped balls. I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Flacco completed only 11 passes and had trouble connecting with rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith as he completed 2 of 7 passes in his direction for 38 yards.
"It's just executing," Smith said. "We all can catch. We wouldn't be here if we couldn't. We've just got to make the plays. It's that simple. There's going to be tough throws and tough catches. It's the NFL, we've got to make those plays. There's really no excuses."
Veteran defensive end Cory Redding was deactivated due to a right ankle injury that's been bothering him for a while.
He was replaced in the starting lineup by Arthur Jones.
"I think he did well," Redding said. "He was a little anxious and did some things. He did not play cautious. That's what I like about him. He made some spectacular plays. That's what allowed other guys to make plays. He did his job."
Does Redding expect to return next week?
"Yeah, that's the game plan," Redding said.
After a rough game in a start against the San Diego Chargers where he was repeatedly targeted and allowed a touchdown pass to wide receiver Malcom Floyd, rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith improved markedly.
He didn't allow any long passes.
"I didn't give up any big plays, that was my goal," Smith said. "I mean, I'm very aggressive and they saw that on my film. They tried to double-move me a couple times. I learned from it I went back and saw why they tried me on certain things."
Rookie wide receiver Tandon Doss was active for the first time since an Oct. 30 win over the Arizona Cardinals. The fourth-round draft pick had one pass thrown to him, but was unable to catch his first NFL pass of his career.
"It's been a long time," Doss said. I didn't get any hands on it. I got my feet wet a little bit. I look forward to doing more. I haven't played football in an actual game in a while. Of course, there's going to be some rust."
The Ravens deactivated Cundiff, wide receiver LaQuan Williams, running back Anthony Allen (hamstring), cornerback Danny Gorrer, Boldin and linebacker Sergio Kindle. … The Browns scratched quarterback Colt McCoy and wide receiver Jordan Norwood because of concussions as well as wide receiver Rod Windsor, cornerback James Dockery, center Steve Vallos, defensive end Kiante Tripp and former Ravens offensive tackle Oniel Cousins. … The Ravens' game captains were outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, Nakamura and offensive guard Marshal Yanda. … Running back Ray Rice has 1,869 yards from scrimmage, ranking third in team history. With 13 touchdowns, he's one behind the single-season franchise record of 14 shared by Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee and Michael Jackson.
The Ravens are now 32-5 under Harbaugh when they score first. That includes a 9-0 mark this season. … The Ravens are 10-0 this season when they lead at halftime and 10-0 when they score at least 20 points. … In their eight home games, all wins, the Ravens averaged 27.4 points per game and allowed only 14.9 points per game.
BALTIMORE RAVENS' REPORT CARD
Joe Flacco was solid, albeit unspectacular. Although he delivered a pair of touchdown passes, he was also intercepted once by cornerback Sheldon Brown. Flacco completed only 11 of 24 passes for 132 yards for a 73.6 quarterback rating. It was an ordinary performance by Flacco, but the Ravens didn't need him do much against a shaky Browns defense.
Running back: B-plus
Exploiting the 31st-ranked run defense in the league, the Ravens pounded out 162 yards on the ground on 37 carries as they averaged 4.4 yards per rush. Running back Ray Rice remained a step ahead of the Browns' linebackers all game with 87 rushing yards on 23 carries. He also ran past former University of Maryland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson for an artful 42-yard touchdown catch. Fullback Vonta Leach registered some thunderous lead blocks. Ricky Williams gained 45 yards on 10 carries in relief of Rice.
There was little in the way of separation gained except for rookie Torrey Smith, who drew a 60-yard pass interference penalty. He also caught two passes for 38 yards. Tight end Ed Dickson caught a touchdown pass, but also struggled with dropping routine passes. Targeted four times with Anquan Boldin sidelined with a knee injury, wide receiver Lee Evans didn't catch a single pass.
Offensive line: C
Andre Gurode did a decent job of filling in for injured offensive guard Marshal Yanda, who left the game and didn't return due to bruised ribs. Joe Flacco was only sacked once. Left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and left offensive guard Ben Grubbs did a good job of creating holes for Ray Rice to roam through.
Defensive line: C
The Ravens seemed to miss defensive end Cory Redding and his trademark hustle and aggressiveness. They got gashed up the middle by Browns running back Peyton Hillis, who grinded out 112 yards on 24 carries. His longest run was only 15 yards, but he punished defenders who got in his way. Paul Kruger had a sack.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis led the defense with 10 tackles, but few were for short gains and none were for losses. He also committed a pass interference penalty. Brendon Ayanbadejo provided a key tackle on fourth down on Peyton Hillis to put the game away. He also sacked Seneca Wallace once.
Lardarius Webb anticipated a throw well and picked off Seneca Wallace. He also deflected four passes. Rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith improved after playing too recklessly against the San Diego Chargers and getting beaten on double-moves. He played within the defense this time as he filled in for Cary Williams, who suffered a concussion.
Special teams: D-plus
Standing in for injured Billy Cundiff, Shayne Graham made field goals from 48 and 43 yards. The punt team needs to go back to the drawing board, giving up an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown to Browns return man extraordinaire Josh Cribbs. It's the third time this season the special teams has allowed a return for a score. Punter Sam Koch averaged 44.6 yards per punt with a long of 53 yards.
BALTIMORE – Six days after being embarrassed in front of the entire nation against the San Diego Chargers in a clunker of a game on the West Coast, the Baltimore Ravens returned home and got the job done against the downtrodden Cleveland Browns.
Here's how the Ravens (11-4) manufactured a 20-14 victory as they withstood a late comeback attempt Saturday to finish undefeated in eight games at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time in franchise history, winning their eighth consecutive game over the Browns (4-11):
Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice dazzled at times before the Ravens oddly stopped getting him the football as often in the second half. He rushed for 87 yards on 23 carries and he caught three passes for 48 yards, including a 42-yard wheel route where he dashed past lumbering Browns middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson.
Meanwhile, quarterback Joe Flacco managed the game for the most part with just 132 passing yards and threw an interception on a pass intended for Lee Evans. However, he did connect with Rice on a well-timed throw for one score and found tight end Dickson over the middle for his second touchdown pass. The Ravens converted 7 of 17 third downs for 284 yards of total offense, but seemed to miss injured wide receiver Anquan Boldin's presence in the lineup due to a knee injury that required minor surgery Thursday.
Defensively, the Ravens limited the Browns to 256 yards and 5 of 13 on third-down conversions. They did the majority of their damage on the ground as power back Peyton Hillis gained 112 rushing yards on 24 carries. Quarterback Seneca Wallace was elusive at escaping the pocket, but was picked off once by cornerback Lardarius Webb to set up the Ravens' first touchdown. Wallace was only sacked twice.
The bright spot? The kicking game wasn't an adventure this week as far as field goals as newly-acquired kicker Shayne Graham booted field goals from 48 and 43 yards, standing in for injured, struggling Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff.
However, the special teams allowed their third return for a touchdown this season. Pro Bowl return man Josh Cribbs returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown in the second half to seize the momentum for the Browns.
If not for some late-game defensive stands and head-scratching play-calling from Browns coach Pat Shurmur, this game could have had an entirely different ending.
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