BALTIMORE — Under attack from critics all week after the worst game of his career, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco issued a convincing rebuttal when the Cleveland Browns unleashed an all-out blitz in the fourth quarter.
With several defenders barreling toward him, Flacco stood firm in the pocket and delivered a lob pass to an accelerating Anquan Boldin for the game-winning touchdown. Boldin caught the football in stride behind cornerback Eric Wright, beating him for his third touchdown catch.
"That was a big-time play," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the go-ahead 27-yard touchdown. "When you talk about a guy making progress in his third year, I think it showed up right there."
One week removed from an erratic and unprecedented four interceptions is a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, it was Flacco who led the charge in a 24-17 victory at M&T Bank Stadium to spearhead a win when the defense was allowing burly Peyton Hillis to bulldoze them.
This marks the fifth consecutive victory for the Ravens (2-1) over the Browns (0-3) as Boldin caught eight passes for 142 yards and three scores.
"Obviously, you’re a lot happier this week than you were last week," Flacco said. "Hey those games happen, man. You’ve got to realize that as a player and do everything you can to get better, and come out and have a better performance next week. And that’s what we did."
Flacco entered the game with the most interceptions in the league with five and the lowest passer rating in the NFL, which prompted fans to wonder aloud if expensive backup Marc Bulger should be playing.
Flacco eased those doubts by throwing for 262 yards on 22 of 31 accuracy and a 128.7 passer rating, the second-highest of his career.
"It says he’s the guy you want playing quarterback for you," Harbaugh said. "I don’t think there’s a guy in the building that doubted that for one second. Every game’s not going to be perfect, but he played well."
Flacco said he doesn’t concern himself with whether this performance will silence doubters.
He’s already thinking about next week’s showdown with the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) at Heinz Field.
"It doesn’t matter, I don’t care," Flacco said. "It was a good performance, and I’m going to come back with another one next week."
Down 17-14 in the fourth quarter, Flacco engineered a textbook drive.
He completed 6 of 7 passes for 78 yards to put the Ravens up 21-17 with 9:13 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"Joe is always Joe," Boldin said. "I think he’s a great quarterback. I think he caught too much flak last week, but that comes with the quarterback position. Whenever a team is doing well, quarterbacks get all the praise. Whenever things don’t go well, they get all the blame.
"I love what he did. He came out and just played football. He made a lot of great throws out there. I think he made quick decisions, good decisions, and you see the end result."
Boldin was the Ravens’ biggest offseason acquisition, acquired in a trade from the Arizona Cardinals and signed to a $28 million contract. He justified that investment and then some with his dominance of Wright.
"Anquan showed why we wanted him to be a Raven," Harbaugh said. "He’s our kind of guy. He played the way we want to play."
First, Boldin flashed over the middle in the back of the end zone for a leaping eight-yard touchdown catch steps behind Wright to stake Baltimore to a 7-3 lead in the first quarter. Flacco completed 5 of 7 passes on the drive with the final one going for Boldin’s first touchdown since joining the Ravens.
It was his 600th career reception, making him the fastest player to catch that many passes in NFL history as he broke Marvin Harrison’s record.
"I was told to come here and be myself and whatever that entails: going out and making plays whenever they need it," said Boldin, who tossed at least two of his touchdown balls into the stands.
Then, Boldin beat Wright, a speedy cornerback, by breaking inside and getting wide open to haul in a 12-yard touchdown for Flacco for a 14-3 lead. Wright guessed incorrectly that Boldin was going to run a fade route to the corner of the end zone.
His score capped a 10-play, 93-yard march that lasted 5 minutes and 53 seconds and was highlighted by Flacco completing all five of his throws for 75 yards.
Wright simply had no answers for Boldin.
"I feel like they put him in some positions where it was single coverage," Boldin said. "That’s one of the matchups that we felt we could take advantage of."
One of the key plays of the game was on 3rd-and-13 at the Browns’ 46-yard line before Boldin’s final touchdown.
Flacco located tight end Todd Heap over the middle, hitting him in traffic for a 14-yard pass that kept the drive alive.
Again, Flacco beat an aggressive blitz from Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
"We knew they’d been bringing a lot of pressure, and I think that was one where Joe just kind of had my eyes and kind of saw where he was going to put it," Heap said. "I cut back underneath that safety covering me, and we were able to connect and get the third down just by a little bit.
"That was one of those plays that we needed after having a couple of hiccups. We needed to come back and make a big third-down catch."
Later, the Ravens added a 49-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff for some breathing room against a competitive Browns team.
While a traditionally stout defense was being gashed for 144 rushing yards on 22 carries by Hillis, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound power back who played fullback, tight end, tailback, wide receiver and returned punts and kickoffs at Arkansas, the offense pulled off a rare accomplishment by picking up their counterparts.
"It feels pretty good," running back Willis McGahee said. "Our team is starting to balance out. We’re used to that defense pulling out games and getting the win for us, which they’re still doing. They got some help from the offense now."
Added Harbaugh: "I think the whole team won the game. Our offense wants to be that kind of group that can, if we’re not shutting a team down like we’re capable of doing, which we didn’t like we’ve done before on defense, we have to be able to score some points and keep our defense off the field and give them a break. It didn’t happen all the time. There were times when we had to get back out there on defense and find a way to get a stop. I thought our offense carried themselves really well."
McGahee replaced Pro Bowl runner Ray Rice in the third quarter after Rice sprained his knee. He’s scheduled to have a magnetic resonance imaging exam today, but Harbaugh said there’s no ligament or cartilage damage.
As well as Flacco played, the game almost began in an eerily similar manner to last week’s debacle in Cincinnati.
Flacco’s first pass was nearly intercepted for a touchdown. However, rookie safety T.J. Ward allowed the ball to ricochet off his hands with no one to stop him from reaching the end zone.
"I tried to get the ball out of bounds, I didn’t get it there," Flacco said. "It was good defense, it just wasn’t good enough. From there on, we played pretty well and even that worked out for us a little bit."
The Browns closed the gap to 14-10 at halftime on Hillis’ one-yard touchdown run.
It represents the first touchdown scored against the Ravens this season, ending a streak of nine quarters without a touchdown this season.
Hillis rushed for 73 yards in the first half alone.
The Browns built a short-lived 17-14 lead on the opening play of the fourth quarter on quarterback Seneca Wallace’s one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ben Watson in front of strong safety Dawan Landry.
Hillis had a 48-yard run on that drive. And the officials tacked on 15 more yards when safety Tom Zbikowski threw Hillis down out of bounds. Then, Josh Cribbs turned in a 19-yard run out of the Wildcat formation to set up Watson’s touchdown.
"This guy, Hillis, we watched him on tape and we thought he’s a downhill runner," Harbaugh said. "He’s physical. I guess he’s a guy you have to see in person to appreciate him. This guy is hard to bring down. He’s a north-south runner. And he’s a guy we’re going to have to contend with for a long time in this division."
While the defense uncharacteristically faltered, allowing 304 yards of total offense with 173 yards on the ground, the offense was steady.
They piled up 19 first downs and 365 yards of total offense.
"It’s a team game," fullback Le’Ron McClain said. "The defense has had to carry us sometimes. There’s times when we have to carry the defense. It’s a team effort."
The Ravens will need to play much better next week against the Steelers, especially against running back Rashard Mendenhall.
"It’s a great football game, it’s a great team win," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We got to quit making it so hard for us."