CLEVELAND — Confusing rookie quarterback Colt McCoy into several miscues and halting running back Peyton Hillis in his tracks, the Baltimore Ravens were downright capitalistic in nature.
By aggressively taking advantage of the Browns’ mistakes, including four turnovers, the Ravens clinched a playoff berth for an unprecedented third consecutive year to set a new franchise record.
The Ravens’ 20-10 road victory Sunday over the last-place Browns guarantees them a spot in the AFC wild-card round. If the season ended today, the Ravens (11-4) would square off with the Indianapolis Colts in a rematch of last season’s divisional round.
“We’re in,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who became the fourth NFL coach in the past two decades to make it to the playoffs in his first three years as he matched Barry Switzer, Dennis Green and Bill Cowher. “It’s just the beginning is what I told them. This is where it starts because we have an opportunity now to accomplish what we dream of and what we’ve worked for.”
The Ravens still have an outside chance at winning the AFC North, but would need to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in their regular-season finale and for the Browns to upset the Steelers next week.
“I told some of the guys to go get ‘em next week coming off the field,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “It would definitely be nice to see those guys go and play Pittsburgh tough.”
The Ravens repeatedly baited McCoy into poor decisions, intercepting him three times, with star free safety Ed Reed picking him off twice.
And cornerback Chris Carr forced wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi to fumble, leading to one of the Raven’ touchdowns.
Hillis rushed for only 35 yards on 12 carries after gaining a career-high 144 yards in the third week of the season against Baltimore.
Three plays after Carr stripped the football out of Massaquoi’s hands and inside linebacker Jameel McClain recovered, Flacco connected with wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh with a perfectly-placed 15-yard spiral for a touchdown.
“When I got the snap, I could see they were only rushing two guys, the safety was looking in and got caught up,” Flacco said. “T.J. made his break on the post drop and I had to throw it around the safety and the ball hung up just enough to get over him.”
The score staked the Ravens to a 10-7 lead.
"Joe put the ball to where he couldn’t make a play on that," Houshmandzadeh said. "I just had to focus on the ball. You have to make the most of the opportunities when you get them."
Subsequently, the first of Reed’s two interceptions led to a 40-yard Billy Cundiff field goal as the Ravens led 13-10 at halftime, scoring 13 points in a row after allowing an early touchdown.
Flacco completed 12 of 19 passes for 102 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
His third-quarter strike to wide receiver Derrick Mason capped the Ravens’ scoring with a 22-yard touchdown that the veteran hauled in despite being mauled by cornerback Sheldon Brown with Baltimore declining the pass interference call.
It was the Ravens’ first second-half touchdown in six games.
“Joe made some plays,” Harbaugh said. “The touchdown throws were really incredible throws, and the scramble plays were tremendous. A couple of times, Joe was in trouble.”
Cornerback Lardarius Webb intercepted a deep throw McCoy lobbed toward Massaquoi in the first quarter.
The Browns resorted to a trick playfor their lone score as Massaquoi got the football behind Carr to Brian Robiskie for a 29-yard touchdown pass after quarterback Seneca Wallace handed it off to Hillis, who pitched it to Massaquoi.
“I actually expected some trickery,” Carr said. “I had a feeling when I saw Seneca Wallace in there. I read it. I just kind of misread the direction of the ball. I thought he was going to throw it a little differently. It’s kind of disappointing when you know a play is coming and you don’t defend it.”
Carr would redeem himself, though, with the forced fumble.
Browns coach Eric Mangini was aggressive to begin the second half, but his approach backfired.
Kicker Phil Dawson’s onside kick didn’t go the required 10 yards and Baltimore took over at the Browns’ 38-yard line after it skidded out of bounds after eight yards.
Three plays later, the Ravens took advantage of the short field as Flacco connected with Mason for the touchdown.
"It really set the tone in the second half," Harbaugh said. "I’m impressed that we capitalized. To go get the touchdown was big."
A subsequent Flacco interception to Browns rookie cornerback Joe Haden didn’t cost the Ravens any points as the defense shut down the Browns.
In a scoreless fourth quarter, Reed intercepted a deep McCoy pass meant for Massaquoi at the goal line. Then, he made the mistake of lateraling the football.
Webb jumped on it at the Ravens’ 32-yard line. Then, the Ravens ran out the clock on the Browns to close out the win.
“We’re not done with the regular season yet,” Harbaugh said. “We knew we had to get to 11[wins] to get in the playoffs, and it’s turned out to be the case. Now, we have to get to 12 to have a chance to win the division. I know the chances of that probably aren’t that great, but we also know that this is a good football team here that we just played and we need to beat a good football team.”
It was Lewis who promised the Ravens would prevent Hillis from gashing them again.
And it was Lewis who said he’s not worried about whether the Ravens claim the division title. He’s happy to make the playoffs.
“Honestly, it don’t matter,” Lewis said. “The only thing you can ask for in this business to get in the dance. We have to take care of our business next week against Cincinnati, a team that beat us earlier in the year, a team in our division.”
Under the direction of Harbaugh, the Ravens are now making the playoffs on a consistent basis.
“It feels really good,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “There’s a couple of years where we didn’t get to go and had the displeasure of watching everybody play. There’s nothing like playoff football, the atmosphere.
"And there’s only 12 teams that get a chance to play for the Super Bowl. Hopefully, we’ll learn from our mistakes these past two years and get ourselves a legitimate run at this thing.