BALTIMORE – Joe Flacco spun the football off his fingertips with touch, connecting with running back Willis McGahee in the open field on a short swing pass.
And then the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback stood in the pocket and enjoyed the view, watching McGahee dodging tacklers and offensive guard Ben Grubbs and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh throwing key downfield blocks as he scooted into the end zone.
"I was loving that," Flacco said. "A quarterback’s best friends are screen passes for touchdowns. That was huge to see him take it the way he did."
The 32-yard touchdown catch got the Ravens off to a fast start, triggering an early lead for an offense that remained a step or two ahead of the Miami Dolphins during a commanding 26-10 victory on a blustery Sunday before 71,305 M&T Bank Stadium.
"It was real big," McGahee said. "It sets the tone for the defense and the offense. I just said to myself, ‘One person isn’t going to take me down.’"
Between piling up 402 yards of total offense, four field goals from kicker Billy Cundiff and a defense that intercepted Miami quarterback Chad Henne three times, the Ravens (6-2) had more than enough ammunition to halt the Dolphins’ four-game road winning streak.
The Ravens never even punted.
This marks the Ravens’ seventh consecutive win at home dating back to last season and 11th win out of their past 13 games in Baltimore.
With five wins in the past six games, the Ravens are tied with the New England Patriots, New York Giants and the Atlanta Falcons for the top record in the NFL.
The Ravens’ defense shut the Dolphins (4-4) out after building a 13-10 halftime lead, stonewalling the Miami running game to 24 yards in the second half.
"We were undefeated at home, and I just think it was important we come in and protect our home the way we did," All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "I just loved the way we came out and played. When you look at the overall, where we’re going as a team, you have to be excited."
Despite a botched field goal attempt due to a muffed hold and a missed field goal, the Ravens remained in control.
Cundiff booted field goals from 26, 39, 20 and 24 yards.
And Flacco and Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice both turned in strong performances.
Although he was sacked four times and hit on five other plays, Flacco remains on a hot streak.
He completed 20 of 27 throws for 266 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a season-high 129.6 quarterback rating.
"Joe was very patient in the pocket," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It may have led to a sack or two, but you know what? Sometimes, we can live with that. I thought Joe did a good job of keeping his poise, keeping his eyes downfield looking to make plays. That gave us an opportunity to get the ball to the backs and let Ray run with the ball after the catch."
In the Ravens’ past six games following a four-interception debacle against the Cincinnati Bengals, Flacco has completed 123 of 186 passes for 1,515 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception for a league-high 108.6 rating.
"Joe expects this," Harbaugh said. "Our expectations are not to be OK. Our expectations are to be dominant."
Flacco wasn’t only good.
He was also fortunate that cornerback Sean Smith dropped an interception that could have been a potential touchdown.
"I think he was really sitting there in coverage," Flacco said. "He jumped it, baited us and we lucked out big-time."
Meanwhile, Rice caught a team-high seven passes for 97 yards, rushing for 83 yards on 22 carries. Rice gained 34 yards on a catch on the Ravens’ first drive of the third quarter.
He dashed past speedy Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake, who sacked Flacco twice. The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder was overmatched against Rice in pass coverage.
"Coming out in the second half, I definitely felt that I would be able to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities out there," Rice said. "Even if I’m last in the progression, if Joe hits me with the pass, I can turn that five yards into 15 yards as long as I’m in space.
"I was working on linebackers most of the time. One time, there was a busted coverage. Joe sees me. As long as I get the ball out in space in one-on-one opportunities, I think I’ll be able to do something from there."
The Dolphins strangely neglected to spy Rice.
"Why would we shadow him?" Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "He didn’t do anything."
Rice’s long gain set up a 12-yard Flacco touchdown pass to wide receiver Derrick Mason that staked the Ravens to a 20-10 lead that would prove to be enough points to win the game.
Flacco simply took what the defense gave him, and Rice did the rest with his superior elusiveness.
"We were looking downfield and they did a good job of covering it up, and Ray did a good job of kind of breaking away from the underneath guy," Flacco said. "The linebacker’s not going to be able to cover him with his quickness."
The Dolphins tied the game in the first quarter on Ronnie Brown’s 12-yard touchdown run. However, Brown rushed for 45 of his 59 yards on that one drive. He had only three additional carries and 15 yards after the first Dolphins possession.
With the exception of a field goal at the end of the first half after a stalled drive, the Dolphins never scored again.
The Dolphins’ tackling was horrendous.
"It was a ridiculous performance by our defense," said Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder, who got into a shoving match that he alleges was started by fullback Le’Ron McClain spitting in his face. "It was too easy for them."
Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter missed a fourth-quarter field goal try wide to the left.
And Cundiff chipped in two more field goals to put the game out of reach.
Plus, cornerback Josh Wilson and free safety Ed Reed intercepted Henne twice in the fourth quarter. It was a major improvement for a defense that surrendered 10-point leads in each of the Ravens’ previous two games, which forced overtime.
"I wouldn’t say we struggled, but a lot of teams had success against us early in the season, and it’s rolling in our favor now," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It’s just that time of the season. We knew we didn’t want to have another Buffalo game and scare the hell out of our fans and family at home, so we just got it corrected early and had the day we did."
The Ravens limited the Dolphins to 289 yards of total offense, only 136 after intermission.
They prevented Henne from throwing a touchdown pass and bottled up star wide receiver Brandon Marshall, limiting him to five catches for 30 yards.
"Right now, we can’t beat the great teams, we can’t beat the good teams," Marshall said. "I can’t put my finger on it. We just shoot ourselves in the foot."
Plus, the Ravens controlled the football for 37 minutes and 47 seconds to the Dolphins’ 21 minutes and 38 seconds, as they handily won the time of possession battle. The Ravens generated 23 first downs.
"We did a great job all day," Flacco said. "I don’t even know if you can even point to one drive. We really drove the ball well all day."
Their major shortcoming was going 1-for-7 in red-zone situations.
In home games following a bye week, the Ravens are now 6-0 dating back to the 2002 season. They’re 8-1 overall after byes since the bye week and 3-0 under Harbaugh.
The Ravens don’t have much time to celebrate this victory. They’re back to work today as they’ll begin preparations for Thursday night’s road game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
"We’re going to enjoy this one for about two hours and then we’re going to go to work on Atlanta," said Harbaugh, whose team is 16-4 at home under his direction. "We have a new challenge next week."