Ravens survive thriller in San Diego

SAN DIEGO -- Ray Lewis practically rubbed his hands together in anticipation before the snap, recognizing a familiar scenario unfolding in front of him. The Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro middle linebacker wasn't dwelling on how San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers had shredded his defense all day through the air.

The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was too busy staring across the line of scrimmage at elusive Chargers running back Darren Sproles as he prepared for a pivotal fourth down deep in Ravens territory.

Lewis instinctively shot through a gap unblocked and crushed Sproles for a five-yard loss on 4th-and-2, creating a big collision in the final seconds to seal the Ravens' epic 31-26 victory Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.

With the Chargers (1-1) desperately in need of a touchdown with 33 seconds remaining at the Baltimore 15-ya rd line, Lewis slammed Sproles to the ground to set off a raucous celebration on the Ravens' sideline.

"I told my teammates we would not lose this game," said Lewis, who finished with a dozen tackles. "That was probably one of the greatest plays of my career because of my team, because of what we did as a team. It wasn't a called play at all. When I read it, it's either I make it or they make it.

"I tell my team all the time, I'm not going to ask you to do nothing that I won't do myself. And that's take a risk, so I took a risk and I shot it. It's always that crucial moment that's being set up and I just shot it. I just saw him sitting there and you know what I do to people."

With the star linebacker's trademark clutch tackle, the Ravens' defense overcame a day where they were bent to their limits as Rivers passed for a career-high 436 yards.

It was an unusual, uncharacteristic sequence to say the least from the Baltimore defense.

"We're better than what we showed," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "It's the first time I've seen Baltimore Ravens football where the defense can play poorly and get a win. It wasn't our best, but we can clean that up."

Still, the Ravens got the final word against Sproles after he opened the Chargers' scoring with an electrifying 81-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.

Sproles finished with seven catches for 124 yards and turned in a 53-yard kickoff return in piling up 278 all-purpose yards, but he didn't have a chance against Lewis on the most important play of the game.

"I guess Ray Lewis knows a little bit more," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He made the greatest football play I've ever seen. It was really a team victory, but Ray Lewis put the exclamation point on it when he had to."

Rivers completed 25 of 45 passes, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions. Both o f them led to Ravens scores.

That included a fourth-quarter interception picked off by outside linebacker Antwan Barnes that set up Steve Hauschka's 33-yard field goal to boost the Ravens' lead to five points.

Reserve cornerback Frank Walker, who was repeatedly picked on during the preseason, deflected a Rivers pass on the Chargers final drive in the end zone.

"They had been throwing jump balls all night," Walker said. "The best thing to do is to knock it down when you can't make a play.

"That's what we do. This defense figures out a way to win. Sometimes, you've got to be a blessed team."

Ultimately, the story of the game emerged behind Lewis' big tackle as well as a gritty running game. The Ravens converted three of four red-zone shots while the Chargers settled for four field goals in going 0-for-5 inside the Ravens' 20-yard line.

"Willpower and discipline," said running back Willis McGahee, who rushed for 79 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. "It comes down to who wanted it more. We wanted it more."

One week removed from generating a franchise-record 501 yards, the Ravens had trouble finishing off the Chargers due to a porous secondary dealing with a major size disadvantage.

Despite the absence of Chargers star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick and right guard Louis Vasquez due to injuries and defensive tackle Jamal Williams being placed on injured reserve, San Diego presented a major challenge.

They couldn't get the job done, though, because the Ravens stonewalled them by digging in with a succession of goal-line stands.

The Chargers failed to score a touchdown despite driving down to the Ravens' 5, 2 and 1-yard lines in the first half as Nate Kaeding kicked three of his four field goals before halftime.

When Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was hit from behind by Shawne Merriman and intercepted by Antoine Cason in the fourth quarter, the Chargers drove down to the Ravens' 10-yard line.

However, they wound up only getting a 25-yard Kaeding field goal to close the lead to 28-26.

"You can't turn the ball over," Flacco said. "Luckily, we got away with it."

In the third quarter, Lewis harassed Rivers into an errant pass intercepted by strong safety Dawan Landry. That turnover set up Flacco's nine-yard touchdown pass to Todd Heap for a 28-16 advantage.

Flacco completed 17 of 26 passes for 190 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for a 96.6 quarterback rating one week after a career-high 307 yards and three touchdowns.

"Joe was really good," Harbaugh said.

Then, Rivers answered with a 35-yard touchdown pass to imposing wide receiver Vincent Jackson on a 3rd-and-18 in the final minutes of the third quarter. Jackson caught six passes for 141 yards.

"Our job is to come up with a win no matter what," free safety Ed Reed said. "We fought, hung in there and came up with the win.

"It's hard work, it's dedication, it's love for the guy next to you. We've been doing this for a while. We're building something. It's going to be perfect. In the end, only the win matters."

The first half ended with the Chargers' fans loudly booing coach Norv Turner's conservative decision to have Kaeding kick a 23-yard field goal on 3rd-and-goal from the five-yard line.

It's hard to blame him with how the Ravens' goal line defense was performing.

Arguably the Ravens' lone departure from a meat-and-potatoes approach on offense took place in the second quarter.

Flacco had Kelley Washington open all by himself, lobbing the football high into the air like a pop fly to the wide receiver..

With no one near him, he finished off a 27-yard touchdown pass. It was his first score since 2006 when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Chargers' bumbling red-zone theme continued during the second quarter when they were stonewalled for a loss of two yards on three plays following tight end Antonio Gates' 37-yard catch down to the Ravens' two-yard line.

San Diego was forced to settle for a 22-yard Kaeding field goal, closing the gap to 14-13.

The Ravens stuck with a familiar approach on their second touchdown drive.

Moving the football 78 yards in 11 plays and 4 minutes and 10 seconds, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron used his backs almost exclusively on the drive.

One play after Heap drew a defensive pass interference penalty with linebacker Kevin Burnett hanging all over him at the goal line, the 21-yard penalty set the stage for McGahee's second touchdown run.

From three yards out, McGahee maneuvered into the end zone behind blocks from Jared Gaither, Ben Grubbs and McClain.

"I think that was the big feat of the game," Heap said. "When we got down into the red zone, we were able to score points. I think that's what kind of shifted the momentum in our favor."

In the first quarter, the Ravens' defense recovered from Malcom Floyd's 45-yard reception behind Foxworth down to the Baltimore 8-yard line.

A sack on Rivers by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs threw him for a 10-yard loss, setting the stage for a 29-yard Kaeding field goal to give the Chargers a 10-7 lead.

The Chargers began that drive on their 33-yard line because running back Matthew Lawrence jumped on the pile to tackle Antonio Cromartie when he was already wrapped up, drawing a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.

The Chargers struck first, and it was an emphatic score.

Sproles drifted out of the backfield alone after outside linebacker Terrell Suggs shoved him.

By the time Rivers flipped the football out to Sproles on a swing pass, he was all by himself.

The elusive 5-foot-6, 185-pounder dashed up the sidelines away from cornerback Fabian Washington before reversing field to cut around chasing Reed for an 81-yard touchdown catch It's the longest of his career.

Baltimore immediately answered with a convincing drive of its own, albeit with a completely different style.

The Ravens grinded out a nine-play, 68-yard drive punctuated by McGahee's first touchdown run from five yards out. Rice's 21-yard catch-and-run was a key play.

He got key blocks from Chris Chester, Michael Oher and Le'Ron McClain as he busted into the end zone.

Carrying the football four times, McGahee gained 25 yards on the drive.

If not for the running game and Lewis' tackle, this game probably would have had a different outcome.

"When you need a play, you expect your leader to be there," Reed said. "Ray is our firestarter."

The Ravens remain undefeated, but have some things to shore up heading into next week's game against the Cleveland Browns.

"By no means are we where we need to be," Harbaugh said. "This is the second game of the season, it's a great victory. We've got a thousand things to work on.

"We've got to get better because people are going to exploit the big-play issue. We've got to find a way to get a handle on it."


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