BALTIMORE – Ray Lewis was furiously waving a towel and wearing sweats, bellowing instructions to his teammates from the sideline instead of operating from his usual spot of authority at middle linebacker.
Even with the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year unable to play due to a toe injury, running back Ray Rice was convinced that the traditionally stingy Baltimore Ravens defense would eventually close down the explosive Cincinnati Bengals’ offense.
"I looked at the time on the clock and I said, ‘Our defense will get it done,’" Rice said. "That’s the faith that I have in our guys."
And it was justified as rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee sacked precocious Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton on fourth down with 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter to prevent a furious comeback attempt.
The Ravens (7-3) allowed 483 yards of total offense, 373 through the air from Rookie of the Year candidate Dalton, and still managed to pull out a pivotal, clutch victory on Sunday after nearly squandering a 17-point lead.
The Ravens’ 31-24 triumph before 71,320 at M&T Bank Stadium propels them back into first place in the AFC North division with six games left in the regular season.
"Number one in the division, that’s huge," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Now, we’re the master of our destiny. We’re in the driver’s seat. We can’t take any steps back anymore."
They didn’t Sunday, advancing behind a productive offense and a timely defense while Lewis preached and handed out pointers.
One play after Suggs got Dalton in the grasp during an intentional grounding penalty on third-and-goal at the Baltimore seven-yard line, it was McPhee who delivered the decisive play to put the game away with the Bengals’ threatening at the Ravens’ 17-yard line.
McPhee said he noticed by studying game tape that Dalton had a tendency to let the play clock wind down to five seconds before tapping center Kyle Cook’s hip. Then, Dalton would look to his left and take the snap.
"I got a good get-off," McPhee said. "I just knew they would snap it every time after he tapped the center’s hip. I was paying attention to that. I timed it up pretty good, 100 miles per hour."
The huge play from McPhee was preceded by three Dalton interceptions nabbed by free safety Ed Reed and cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.
Now, the Ravens are tied with the Steelers for first-place in the division, but own the tie-breaker by virtue of their first sweep of Pittsburgh in five years.
"This one felt special," Rice said. "It’s no time to get complacent. You’ve got to stay humble and stay hungry."
And the Ravens were able to hold off the Bengals (6-4) in part because of referee Ron Winter overturning a nine-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to tight end Jermaine Gresham with 5:43 left in the fourth quarter
Under the so-called Calvin Johnson rule, a receiver has to maintain control of the ball after going to the ground.
While being guarded by cornerback Cary Williams, Gresham bobbled the football before finally securing it when he crossed into the end zone.
"When the receiver went to the ground, he had the ball in his right hand," Winter told a pool reporter. "The ball touched the ground and his hand came off the ball, and he then re-grasped it and brought it in. When he’s going to the ground, he has to maintain control of the ball throughout the process of the catch."
So, the Bengals had to settle for a 27-yard Mike Nugent field goal to trail by a touchdown instead of cutting the Ravens’ advantage to three points.
The Ravens are undefeated in three division games, and won this game without Lewis.
"He was there," Suggs said. "We didn’t want to make a mental error because when we came to the sidelines we were still going to hear from our general. He was very much out there, as he always is."
Lewis is expected to attempt to play Thursday night against the San Francisco 49ers, but the toe injury could sideline him anywhere from one to four games.
"Ray wanted to give everything to be out there," Reed said. "We told him just stay focused and do what you need to do to get yourself back. We knew we had to win this game to give him some time to get back, get healthy. Ray had a chance to play, but the smart thing to do was not to rush it."
One week removed from a debacle of a loss to the Seattle Seahawks where quarterback Joe Flacco launched a career-high 52 passes and Rice was limited to only five carries, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron manufactured a more balanced game plan.
Flacco delivered two touchdown passes to rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith and veteran Anquan Boldin, passing for 270 yards with one interception.
And Rice rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, busting loose for a 59-yard run against the Bengals’ second-ranked run defense.
"You want everyone to get involved whether it’s run or pass," Flacco said. "The good thing was we were able to break a couple long ones. We struggled a little bit there in the end, but we were able to hit some long ones in the passing game to shorten the field up for us."
Smith generated 165 receiving yards, third most in a single game in franchise history behind Qadry Ismail and Derrick Alexander.
He hauled in a 49-yarder behind cornerback Nate Clements, also producing a 28-yarder in the second quarter where he was dragged down from behind by his dreadlocks on a legal tackle by cornerback Adam Jones.
The Ravens went ahead 31-14 in the third quarter after Smith’s 38-yard touchdown catch over the middle as he dashed past the safeties in a Cover 2 zone.
"When the ball is in the air, he can separate," Flacco said. "So, I put a lot of air under the ball and he was able to go get it."
The Ravens led 24-14 after a two-yard touchdown run by Rice set up by Smith’s interception that he fumbled and was recovered by Brendon Ayanbadejo as Winter was sent tumbling to the ground in the pileup for the loose football.
The Bengals mounted a comeback, though, marching 80 yards in five plays as Dalton went after Smith on a 49-yard touchdown pass on a fade to Andre Caldwell up the right sideline.
The Ravens led 14-7 at halftime on a 35-yard touchdown from Boldin and a one-yard score from Rice after running back Cedric Benson staked the Bengals to a 7-0 lead with the first of his two touchdown runs.
The second half belonged to the Ravens, too.
Now, the Ravens have won seven games in a row at home, 12 games in a row immediately after a loss for the longest active streak in the league and are 15-4 under Harbaugh in games following a loss.
After losing three games to teams with losing records following emotional victories, the Ravens have proven their resiliency one more time.
"It’s good to bounce back," Suggs said, "but let’s not take any more steps back."