Ravens narrowly defeat Cardinals

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens are majoring in drama this football season, narrowly averting a chaotic collapse as they squandered yet another hefty lead. Despite venerable Arizona Cardinals backup quarterback Kurt Warner exploiting the Baltimore secondary to erase a 17-point deficit, the Ravens escaped with a 26-23 victory Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium

Veteran kicker Matt Stover calmly nailed a 46-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired.

With Ravens coach Brian Billick unexpectedly inserting backup quarterback Kyle Boller in the fourth quarter in place of starter Steve McNair as a precautionary measure due to McNair's nagging groin pull, Boller got Baltimore (2-1) into position for Stover's decisive kick for the 13th game-winner of his career.

"It got pretty hairy as you all can see out there," nickel back Corey Ivy said. "We continue to let them back in the game. We just have to go out and seal the deal."

Baltimore led 20-3 at halftime and was ahead 23-6 entering the fourth quarter when Warner began carving up last year's top-ranked defense. It was the second week in a row where the Ravens were up by 17 and nearly went to overtime, including last week's 20-13 win over the New York Jets.

"Are you concerned?" wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "No, because I know that we have the character, we have the talent and we have the personnel to press through something like that.

"Games are not easy in this league. As a team, we have to buckle down. We let them come back and let them off the hook, but we hit them with that big blow with Matt's field goal."

After Ivy, who started with cornerback Samari Rolle sidelined with an undisclosed illness, successfully shadowed Cardinals wide receiver Bryant Johnson on an incomplete, third-down fade pass on third down into the end zone, kicker Neil Rackers made a game-tying, 41-yard field goal with 1:50 remaining in the game.

Then, Boller went to work as he completed 5 of 5 passes for 32 yards to set up Stover's kick. He didn't appear fazed by the sudden change.

"You just try and put your mind in a place where, hey, it's showtime," Boller said. "I love that situation. I like the pressure. I would be lying if I said it wasn't stressful, but it isn't really that big of a deal because I feel like I prepare myself during the week."

During the drive, the Ravens benefited heavily on a questionable personal foul on Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, who delivered a jarring hit to the helmet of Baltimore tight end Todd Heap on a 12-yard reception. It appeared that Wilson smacked Heap with his shoulder pad, but referee Jerome Boger ruled otherwise.

"We had an airborne receiver hit by a defender, who we called launched into him and he had a [forearm] blow above the shoulders into the head area," referee Jerome Boger told a pool reporter.

The tackle gave Heap a mild concussion, and the play and penalty gave Baltimore possession at the Cardinals' 39-yard line. Three plays and three timeouts later, Stover rescued the Ravens with his fourth field goal of the game.

"I told Stover on the sidelines, 'It's already done,'" middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "I told him, 'I'm with you, Stover. It's over.'"

Stover moved past Norm Johnson into fifth on the league's all-time scoring list with 1,745 career points, hitting the 416th career field goal of his career.

"Do game-winners ever get old?" Stover said. "No, they don't. You don't want to ever let a team when you're up by 17 to ever have to come back and do that.

"But if it does happen, you have to be the guy who wants the ball. If you don't ever feel that way, you need to get out. Just get me in field-goal range."

McNair went 20 for 27 for 198 yards and led Baltimore to scores in three of its first four possessions after missing last week's start. However, Billick called for Boller to start warming up with a 23-6 lead directly after Warner's first touchdown pass.

"I could tell he was favoring it a little bit like last week," said Billick, adding that he didn't consider putting McNair back in with Arizona rallying. "Rather than push it over the edge, I was worried about fatiguing and that's when an injury comes.

"It was time to put Kyle in so it didn't go further. I have a lot of faith in Kyle."

McNair insisted that he didn't aggravate his groin injury and would be able to start next week's road game against the Cleveland Browns.

"I didn't want to put myself in harm's way," McNair said. "We felt like we were in control of the game. Once the move was made, I knew Kyle would finish the game. I wasn't going to go out and press it. It was a smart move."

Operating a no-huddle attacl as if he were in his prime orchestrating the St. Louis Rams' old 'Greatest Show on Turf,' the 36-year old Warner took over for an ineffective Matt Leinart and completed 15 of 20 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns.

He continually went after Ivy and nickel back Ronnie Prude, targeting wide receiver Anquan Boldin for a career-high 14 catches for 181 yards.

"They found their mismatch," Lewis said. "You're talking about a young guy, Ronnie Prude, on the rise, against a great receiver.

"Ronnie Prude made some great plays, but, sooner or later, greatness will override youth. They had the proper mismatches to really attack us, but I think we did what we needed to do to establish the lead and not give it up.

With Baltimore leading by 17 entering the fourth quarter, Warner went 6 for 6 for 72 yards on a drive capped by his crisp, 5-yard touchdown pass to Boldin. Warner finished the fourth quarter 11 of 14 for 141 yards.

"He was slinging it everywhere," McNair said of Warner, who outdueled him and the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Following a Baltimore punt, Warner marched the Cardinals 54 yards in two plays with a 22-yard strike to Larry Fitzgerald and a 32-yard touchdown pass to Boldin streaking over the middle.

"When we got into the no-huddle, we were able to force their hand a little bit," Warner said. "They weren't able to do all their blitzes. We were hitting them quick.

"We got them on their heels. We got them back into some base coverages. We had them reeling a little bit, and it got us back into the game." Baltimore went ahead 20-3 when rookie speedster Yamon Figurs cut left on a punt return and scampered away from four tackle attempts for a 75-yard score that marks his first NFL touchdown.

"We cut it back up the middle and it was wide open," Figurs said. "It was a bunch of great blocking. It's my job to make one guy miss and take it to the house, and that's what I did." Stover hit field goals on the Ravens' next two possessions with Baltimore going 1-for-3 in the red zone.

After an Arizona score, McNair answered with a 70-yard drive as he located Mason on a 13-yard touchdown pass.

Willis McGahee rushed for 98 yards on 21 carries as Baltimore limited Edgerrin James to 57 yards on 10 carries. It was McGahee's 37-yard run that set up Stover's 21-yard field goal after six botched scoring tries inside the Cardinals' 16-yard line.

In the second quarter, McNair went 7 for 7 for 68 yards to set up Stover's 28-yard field goal for a 6-0 lead.

Still, it was a subdued locker room afterward as the Ravens were relieved to win again despite not operating efficiently for 60 minutes. "We're not doing anything but getting better," McGahee said. "We've got to learn how to finish. That's our only downfall in these tight games."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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