BALTIMORE – The Baltimore Ravens never quite relinquished their grip on the football game, avoiding the kind of collapse that could have significantly damaged their prospects for a division title crown.
Although the Ravens were unable to sustain their dominant play after building a lead over the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they did manage to hold off a late comeback attempt by grinding out the clock with running back Ray Rice.
It was a textbook example of a seasoned, veteran outfit doing just enough to win over a young, talented squad.
And the Ravens’ 17-10 victory Sunday night before 70,989 at M&T Bank Stadium positions them perfectly for next Sunday night’s pivotal AFC North showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers with first place in the division at stake.
The Ravens (8-3) won their eighth consecutive game at home, the longest streak in the NFL, and it kept pace with the Steelers as they won in overtime over the Buffalo Bills. And the Buccaneers (7-4) still haven’t defeated a team with a winning record this season.
“It was a very important victory,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Obviously, we have a pretty big game coming up next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I was disappointed in the fact that we didn’t close them out earlier. We had a chance to bury them.
“We had some opportunities to separate from them in the third quarter, which we didn’t take advantage of. And I think that’s the biggest thing I’m disappointed in. It was a win that we needed to get us to December to compete for the things we want to compete for. Now, we’re playing the biggest game of the year.
After building a 17-3 halftime lead on the strength of a 45-yard Billy Cundiff field goal, a 65-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to streaking tight end Todd Heap and a Flacco touchdown pass to wide receiver Derrick Mason in the final seconds of the first half, the Ravens didn’t capitalize in the third quarter.
There were two squandered opportunities in the second half, prime ones.
First, Rice’s 76-yard touchdown pass out of the backfield was negated on a questionable block in the back penalty called on wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
“It wasn’t a hold at all,” Boldin said. “It was a bogus call. There’s no way you can explain to me that I was holding him.”
Instead of a touchdown that would have given the Ravens a commanding 24-3 lead in the third quarter, Baltimore wound up punting it back to Tampa Bay.
On the Buccaneers’ ensuing drive, defensive end Cory Redding attempted to intercept a Josh Freeman pass and nearly hauled it in.
However, an instant-replay challenge took away the interception that would have given the Ravens the ball at the Buccaneers’ eight-yard line.
Redding collided with All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who would have been better served to stay out of his teammate’s way.
“It was so close, but we didn’t quite pull it down,” Harbaugh said.
Lewis’ well-intentioned meddling caused the turnover to be bungled.
“Man, I had the ball in my hands right next to my body,” Redding said. “One of my teammates came in, sure enough it was Ray Lewis, and stripped me of the ball. That’s right, Ray. You stripped the ball. I had the interception, but it’s all good. We won the game, and that’s all that matters.”
The Buccaneers attempted to mount a comeback, having pulled off four previous comebacks this season.
They’ve outscored opponents 72-29 in the fourth quarter.
Freeman manufactured a 13-play, 77-yard drive that he capped with a five-yard lob of a touchdown pass over the fingertips of Ravens inside linebacker Tavares Gooden and into the outstretched hands of tight end Kellen Winslow.
The score brought the Buccaneers to within seven points.
Rice helped the Ravens close out the Buccaneers by catching an 11-yard pass for a first down followed by a 16-yard run for another first down before the two-minute warning.
Particularly impressive for Rice was how he shrugged off a defender on one of his clutch receptions.
“The guy had my whole right arm, I just had to try to make a play,” said Rice, who produced 40 yards on the Ravens’ final drive. “When I look at the play, I might be amazed at what I did. My whole right arm was gone. I could not funnel the ball because he had my whole right arm.
“I just wanted to make a play for my team. I wanted to put us in a position where the defense didn’t have to go back out there I just wanted to give us a chance for us to finish it.”
Then, Rice rumbled ahead for a pair of six-yard runs off right guard Tony Moll’s blocks for another first down to allow Flacco to kneel on the ball twice to end the game.
Rice finished the game with 85 rushing yards on 20 carries, also catching seven passes for 47 yards.
“I felt like we were in control,” said Flacco, who passed for 289 yards and two touchdowns to overcome a first-half interception. “We were never really threatened until the end of the game there. We had to do a good job there and put the game away because they had just gone down and scored a touchdown. You never know what’s going to happen when you give a team the ball at the end of the game.”
The Ravens matched their top output for any quarter this season with their 17-point outburst in the second quarter following a scoreless first.
Heap dashed away from linebacker Barrett Ruud for the longest play of his decade-long career in the NFL.
“You’re never expecting to be that wide open, but Joe saw the same thing I did,” Heap said. “With the play-action, the safety kind of bit up, the linebackers, everybody was flat-footed. I think his eyes got as wide as mine did.”
And all Heap had to do from that point onward was keep running and not get caught with pursuit closing in on him.
“You don’t want to get caught in that situation,” he said. “Obviously, the biggest thing would be from the teammates. I didn’t feel like I was going to get caught. I was expecting to get to the end zone once I saw nobody in front of me. I felt one guy coming from behind me, but I didn’t feel like he was gaining too quickly.”
The Ravens benefitted from a controversial pass interference penalty on Myron Lewis where he was trying to guard T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
The 24-yard penalty put the Ravens in business in the red zone.
Mason lined up in the slot formation, faking out safety Sean Jones with a jab step to get into the middle of the end zone by himself for a 10-yard score.
Flacco is now the franchise’s career leader in touchdown passes with 53 overall, passing Vinny Testaverde.
"Vinny didn’t play here that long, so it’s not that much of an accomplishment," Flacco said.. "Hopefully, I can make that a little higher for somebody else to break in the future sometime."
It bothered Houshmandzadeh that the Ravens didn’t finish off the Buccaneers when they had the chance.
“It’s kind of bittersweet because we should have put them away on offense and we didn’t,” he said. “We got to figure out why that’s the case because eventually that’s going to bite us in the ass.”
Now, the Ravens can turn their attention toward the Steelers.
Executing a sweep over their rivals would give the Ravens a one-game lead in the division race with four games to play.
“It’ll be a statement game for us,” Heap said. “We know what’s in front of us.”
The Ravens are in excellent position to win a division title if they can accomplish the difficult task of defeating a Steelers team that has quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center after his return from a four-game suspension that sidelined him against Baltimore earlier this season at Heinz Field.
“Had we lost we would be in here miserable,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We’re 8-3 going into a championship game, and you can’t ask for nothing better than that. The Bucs came in and they’re a good team, but I think they ran into a team of destiny.”