CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco lobbed a crisp spiral over the flailing hands of Carolina Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble, hitting wide receiver Kelley Washington in stride with a sideline strike in the first quarter.
It was a sneak preview of what was to follow as Flacco completed 23 of 28 passes for 247 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 115.3 quarterback rating.
Minutes after the 42-yard completion to Washington, Flacco lofted a nine-yard pass into the end zone into the outstretched fingertips of tight end Todd Heap to cap the drive with a touchdown pass.
It was an impressive march orchestrated by Flacco during the Ravens’ 17-13 victory over the Panthers on Saturday night before a sparse crowd at Bank of America Stadium. The Ravens improved to a pristine 3-0 this preseason.
And it was a commanding performance overall for Flacco, completing 82 percent of his throws in what amounted to a dress rehearsal for the Ravens’ second-year starter as he played halfway into the third quarter before being relieved by backup Troy Smith.
“We were in a groove," Flacco said. "We had some great drives. I felt really good, and we felt like we were in a good rhythm. Anytime you’re out there putting together drives like that, it feels good."
During the first half, Flacco completed 17 of 22 passes for 199 yards for a 119.3 quarterback rating.
The Ravens aren’t about to abandon their smash-mouth running game, but they liked this approach against the Panthers’ defensive schemes.
"We thought we could throw it last year, but I think we can throw it more this year, better this year," Harbaugh said.
And Flacco utilized a variety of targets, dumping the football off to running back Ray Rice six times for 55 yards in the first half while connecting with two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Mason for five completions for 61 yards.
"Our tempo was good in the first half," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Joe was solid and did a good job of getting us in and out of the huddle quickly."
The Ravens’ first-team offense finished with 277 yards of total offense with 247 yards of that total.
On the touchdown to Heap, it looked like the tandem had built some chemistry and timing.
"He had one-on-one with the linebacker," Flacco said "I was just waiting for him to beat him and throw it over his head."
During the first half, the Ravens outgained the Panthers 231 yards to 104 yards as Baltimore converted 4 of 6 third downs for a 67-percent conversion rate.
The biggest miscue of the night was Steve Hauschka flubbing a 27-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter despite a good snap and hold. He simply sliced it wide right.
The drive stalled after the Ravens drove down to the Panthers’ 1-yard line as rookie offensive tackle Michael Oher committed a false start penalty on 2nd-and-goal followed by a delay of game penalty.
"You have to score when you get inside the five," Cameron said. "Just watch the ball when it’s noisy down there. That’s a live-and-learn situation for a young player."
"The only disappointment is that we didn’t come away with a touchdown on that first drive," Flacco said. "They got us to jump offsides, and we can’t let that happen. If you take away those stupid penalties, you’ll probably have three touchdowns and a field goal. That puts us at 24 points, and that’s what we have to work for."
Hauschka’s big miss was met with frustration by Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who brought the young kicker over to the sideline for a lengthy conversation.
Hauschka had seemed to be on the verge of winning the kicking competition after making all three of his previous attempts during the Ravens’ two preseason games.
Now, the Ravens might be forced to use their final preseason game Thursday against the Atlanta Falcons to decide whether to go with Hauschka or rookie Graham Gano. Gano had converted just 1 of 3 tries heading into the Panthers game, missing his last two attempts.
"We gave up seven points by not scoring on that first drive, and that’s disappointing," Harbaugh said. "Then, we don’t convert the field goal. Not good, but that’s a learning experience for some of the young players."
In the opening drive of the third quarter, Hauschka redeemed himself by splitting the uprights with a 38-yard field goal.
The Panthers wound up scoring first on the subsequent drive following Hauschka’s miss, opening a 3-0 lead on John Kasay’s 38-yard field goal. A key play on the drive was All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis mistiming his leap and whiffing on a Jake Delhomme pass completed over the middle to tight end Jeff King for a 31-yard gain.
Wide receiver Steve Smith’s personal foul for a blatant face mask penalty where he had his hands inside cornerback Domonique Foxworth’s helmet helped the Ravens to stop the drive.
"We let them have the long pass up the middle on their scoring drive, but we did hold them out of the end zone," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "I liked the way we bounced back on that series."
The Ravens immediately responded, though, driving 80 yards on nine plays in a drive culminated by Heap’s score in the corner of the end zone.
After the defense stopped Carolina on a three-and-out, Flacco went back to work.
He completed passes of 15 and 14 yards to Rice, whose change of direction and elusiveness caught the Panthers’ linebackers flat-footed as he generated extra yardage.
Rice finished with 99 yards of total offense, including 10 carries for 32 yards and eight receptions for 67 yards.
After the Ravens drove the football down to the Panthers’ six-yard line, McGahee carried it three consecutive times as he powered into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown in the second quarter to boost the lead to 14-3.
On the score, McGahee bulled past the goal line as he got key blocks from center Matt Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda.
“Our offensive line was firing off the ball,” Heap said. “The receivers were making big plays down the field, and the running backs were making catches underneath. Everybody was making plays, and I feel like we’re right where we want to be.”
Meanwhile, Oher held his own against four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers.
He wasn’t intimidated by the star pass rusher who posted just one tackle. Oher eventually shifted to left offensive tackle with Joe Reitz taking his place on the right side.
During the first half, the Panthers rushed for just 18 yards on eight carries. And Carolina generated just four first downs to the Ravens’ total of 16.
“As a defense, we are just clicking right now," Lewis said. "That’s what’s most exciting, the way we are clicking both offensively and defensively. The bottom line is that everyone is lining up and playing fast. We’re all playing well right now.
“Anytime you’re a veteran in this game, you’re trying to get your wind and get your football conditioning in. Whatever you trained for this offseason, you want to make sure you’re ready to make it count when those live bullets starting firing.”
In the fourth quarter, Panthers running back Decori Birmingham scored on a one-yard touchdown run to close the gap to 17-10.
Then, Kasay booted a 50-yard field goal with 3:44 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"We’re playing well at times and building to do that consistently," Harbaugh said. "It’s obvious, too, that we have plenty of things we can do better and we can work on."
NOTES: Lewis didn’t play in the second half and had his right forearm and elbow heavily wrapped after hyperextending it. He didn’t appear to be seriously injured as he was smiling and laughing on the sidelines. "He was reaching out and got hyperextended," Harbaugh said. "He should be all right." … Ravens free safety Ed Reed missed an open-field tackle on Smith as he appeared to be somewhat hesitant to throw his shoulder pads in there. Reed is still dealing with a nerve impingement of his neck and shoulder and didn’t play in the second half. … Offensive tackle Jared Gaither, who allowed a sack to Tyler Brayton in the first quarter, said that his trapezius and his wrist weren’t bothering him.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.