BALTIMORE – Knees churning, helmet tilted forward and little cleats stomping into the turf, scampering running back Ray Rice kept the Baltimore Ravens positioned toward the playoffs.
The diminutive Pro Bowl runner delivered a resurgent performance that propelled the Ravens to a smash-mouth 30-24 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on Sunday before 71,432 at M&T Bank Stadium.
With Rice darting past linebackers incapable of matching his superior speed and quickness, the Ravens (10-4) remained a step ahead of the Saints (10-4) as they halted their winning streak at six games despite squandering their ninth fourth quarter lead of the season.
It was Rice who provided enough offense to keep the Saints off guard as they outdueled Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees. Rice rushed for a season-high 153 yards and scored two touchdowns, amassing a career-high 233 yards of total offense with five receptions for 80 yards.
"There was some doubt that we weren’t going to be able to beat the defending champs because of last week’s performance, but this is a new week," Rice said. "We scored, they scored. We matched them hand for hand. We played chess with them, and it just so happened we finished the game with a checkmate."
The win was crucial for the Ravens, especially with the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4) losing to the New York Jets.
Although the teams are technically tied for first place in the AFC North with two games remaining in the regular season, the Steelers hold the tiebreaker edge with a better division record because of the Ravens’ loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
In order to win the division, the Ravens need to win their last two games against the Cleveland Browns and the Bengals and they need help from the Steelers. Pittsburgh would have to lose one of their two remaining games against the Panthers or Browns.
"It was a great team victory, but it also has ramifications for the playoffs," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We keep the pressure on Pittsburgh this way. We’re still trying to win the division. They have the edge because they beat us, but we’re not conceding that just yet."
The Ravens put the game away in the fourth quarter with just under two minutes remaining when defensive tackle Haloti Ngata swatted Drew Brees’ fourth-down throw and defensive end Cory Redding intercepted the pop fly. Billy Cundiff knocked in his third field goal, a 27-yarder for some insurance points.
A physical running game defined this game for Baltimore as they got back to their roots of running the football and throwing when necessary as quarterback Joe Flacco went 10 for 20 for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
The Ravens rushed for 208 yards on 39 carries, averaging 4.9 per pop. They grinded out this win by returning to their old offensive line configuration with Marshal Yanda back at right tackle and Chris Chester back in the lineup at right guard, scrapping last week’s experiment of Oniel Cousins at right tackle and Yanda back at guard.
"We put a stamp on it by the running the ball the way we needed to," fullback Le’Ron McClain said. "You could see it in their eyes, you can see them saying throughout the game, ‘Here it comes again, here it comes again.’ That’s our mentality when you get a team on the ropes.
"Running has got to be an attitude. You’ve got to have that mindset, north-south, get down on a guy. You want to punish them. That’s the old Ravens. That’s getting back to where we was. It’s cold, time to run the ball."
Last week against the Texans, the Ravens’ running game was completely ineffective as they were held to 63 rushing yards on 24 carries, a 2.6 average per attempt.
"We wanted it on us," Yanda said. "We wanted to be able to do that. It was a big game for us. It was fun out there. We did some really good things. It felt good to be physical and get after those guys.
"Finally, our runs were substantial and it takes the pressure off a lot of other guys. When we get to knock guys out, we don’t have to pass the ball all the time get in third-and-longs. To be able to bust them up with the run, it makes everybody’s job easier."
Rice eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive season, and is now up to 1,051 yards for the season.
He’s the first Ravens runner to do so since Jamal Lewis.
Rice staked the Ravens to a 21-7 lead with a pair of first-half touchdowns, including his 10-yard score off of Yanda’s block and his 17-yard touchdown catch on the ensuing possession.
It was an outstanding catch as Rice got out of the backfield in a hurry and outran linebacker Scott Shanle and safety Darren Sharper to the corner of the end zone.
And Flacco’s spiral hit Rice in stride.
"I couldn’t even tell you how perfect the ball was," Rice said. "One thing I refuse to do is let a linebacker cover me man to man. With me running, I’ve got a full head of steam. Joe put it where I could catch it, grab it and develop my feet to make sure I wasn’t going out of bounds.
"That’s a big-time throw. I saw it at the last minute. I wanted to make sure I had the guy on my hip, so if I had to back shoulder or something, and that’s where he put it."
The Ravens have won four of their past five games.
And they did so by enduring three touchdown passes from Brees, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.
The Ravens didn’t score a second-half touchdown for the fifth game in a row, but they still won the game.
"To beat them this late in the year when they were peaking, it just says something about our team," Rice said. "We’ve been making it pretty interesting, but one thing about our team is we’ve got a resilient group."
The Saints scored first after free safety Ed Reed was penalized for roughing the passer when he forearmed Brees in the side of his helmet. Rookie tight end Jimmy Graham grabbed the first of his two touchdowns with an acrobatic one-handed grab inside the pylon for an 18-yard score.
The Ravens responded immediately, though.
They scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions.
Rookie tight end Ed Dickson scored his first career touchdown from 34 yards out on a delay route to tie the game up.
The subterfuge of pretending to stay in to block worked.
"We put that play in this week, it was a delay route, a designed delay for the tight end," Dickson said. "We knew they would add on blitzes if they saw us blocking. It was a great play call by Cam Cameron and a great job by Joe of selling it and getting it to me."
Then, Rice answered with his two scores to stake the Ravens to a commanding lead.
In the first half alone, Rice piled up 114 yards of total offense.
"To beat them this late in the year when they were peaking, it just says something about our team," Rice said. "We respond to situations really well. We’ve been making it pretty interesting, but one thing about our team is we’ve got a resilient group that can rebound."
Unlike last week when the Ravens surrendered a three-touchdown lead against the Houston Texans, they were able to hold off the Saints.
The Saints brought it to within 21-14 on Graham’s one-yard touchdown catch with 22 seconds remaining in the first half as Brees completed all nine of his throws for 92 yards.
Despite forcing Brees to fumble twice on hits by outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs, the Ravens couldn’t recover either loose football and Garret Hartley hit a 47-yard field goal to bring it to 21-17.
McClain dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone on the right side on the next possession, a lapse that forced Baltimore to settle for a 33-yard Cundiff field goal.
Then, the Saints tied the game with 11:34 remaining in the fourth quarter on a hotly-contested touchdown catch by Lance Moore.
Moore caught a Brees pass that bounced off the hands of Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson and Saints wide receiver Marques Colston. The Ravens challenged whether Moore got both feet down and had control of the ball, and the ruling on the field was upheld after an instant-replay review.
"What a catch," Harbaugh said. "We thought he stepped out of bounds 10 yards ahead, but [referee] Walt [Anderson] said he didn’t have a good look at it. I couldn’t believe he made the catch. Then you start watching it and you say, ‘The kid might have made the catch.’ I thought you had to challenge it. There’s no way you could let that go. Maybe he was bobbling or maybe he stepped out."
It was Rice again who answered the call as he sprinted 50 yards down to the Saints’ 30-yard line with 15 more yards tackled on by the officials for Romeo Harper’s unnecessary roughness penalty.
Rice had entered the game with no runs over 30 yards.
"Just a tremendous performance," Harbaugh said. "He broke tackles. He made people miss."
This marks Rice’s second 100-yard rushing performance of the season. It’s his most rushing yards since a 154-yard outing against the Browns in November of last year.
"I knew we were going to run the ball," Rice said. "It felt good that we said we were going to do something and then we went out and did it. If I have to be a sparkplug, so be it."
After wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh couldn’t get both feet down on a catch deep in the end zone on the Ravens’ next drive, Baltimore broke the tie on Cundiff’s 32-yard field goal with 10:03 to play.
On a day where the defense held the Saints to 25 rushing yards and prevented Brees from taking over the game, it felt like a statement game inside the Ravens’ locker room.
The Ravens are two games ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Diego Chargers in the AFC wild-card race.
"It’s huge for where we’re at in our season right now," Reed said. "We’ve just got to keep building on it. We’ve got two left, anything can happen. We’ve just got to finish it out, man."