When quarterback Joe Flacco lobbed a perfect spiral into the outstretched hands of wide receiver Mark Clayton with 2:06 remaining in the fourth quarter for a 31-yard game-winning touchdown to beat a heavy blitz, it represented a watershed change from the past when the Ravens were unable to generate a win through the air in pivotal situations.
In this case, Flacco’s strong right arm helped the Ravens pile up a franchise-record 501 yards of total offense to manufacture a 38-24 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs to open the season before 71,099 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Flacco established career-highs with 307 passing yards and three touchdown passes with one interception, completing 26 of a career-high 43 passes for a 95.8 quarterback rating.
"It’s awesome," Flacco said. "It’s so much fun. As a quarterback, that’s what you want to do. You want to sit back there, let your offensive line take care of you and give the ball to your receivers."
It’s the most yards produced by Baltimore since gaining 479 yards on Nov. 19, 2000 against the Dallas Cowboys. It’s the Ravens’ most first downs ever with 32, breaking their old record of 29 set during their inaugural season in 1996 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"This is a new year, a new offense, a new mentality," Clayton said. "We are kind of remaking ourselves."
It’s also the first win by the Ravens in Baltimore over Kansas City after three previous losses.
And it probably doesn’t happen without Flacco’s ability to pick apart the Chiefs’ secondary, or his elusiveness on a three-yard touchdown pass to running back Willis McGahee in the first quarter as he had some nifty moves to avoid the pass rush for several seconds before flipping the football to McGahee.
"He’s got great command," center Matt Birk said. "His demeanor is just perfect. He’s just steady as she goes."
Between Flacco’s composure and quick-strike capability and the defense stonewalling Chiefs running back Larry Johnson as he was held to 20 rushing yards on 11 carries, the Ravens (1-0) were able to overcome a sloppy special-teams outing as they allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown and new kicker Steve Hauschka pushed a 41-yard field goal try wide of the target.
Still, the fact remains that the Chiefs are a 2-14 team from last season that was playing without starting quarterback Matt Cassel due to a sprained left medial collateral ligament and going with Brodie Croyle under center. He’s still winless as a starter, but kept the Chiefs in contention with two touchdown passes as he completed 16 of 24 passes with no interceptions.
As free safety Ed Reed said while trudging up the tunnel into the locker room, "It shouldn’t have been that hard, man."
The game was tied at 17-17 on Ryan Succop’s 53-yard fourth-quarter field goal after Croyle hit wide receiver Mark Bradley with a 50-yard pass behind cornerback Fabian Washington as Washington was running with Bradley and couldn’t make a play on the ball.
The Ravens immediately responded with a nine-play, 76-yard scoring drive keyed by a 25-yard pass to tight end Todd Heap.
Running back Ray Rice’s 22-yard run on a sweep to the right got Baltimore down to the 1-yard line to set up Pro Bowl fullback LeRon McClain’s one-yard touchdown run for a 24-17 advantage.
Then, the Chiefs responded with a pair of receptions to Dwayne Bowe prior to tight end Sean Ryan’s 10-yard touchdown catch.
Linebacker Derrick Johnson returned a Flacco interception 70 yards to set up one Kansas City touchdown.
"We let them hang around," Flacco said. "They’re pretty much a new team, and they had something to prove. We had to make sure we were on top of our game, stayed calm, staying poised. We did a good job of doing that, and that’s why I think we pulled it out in the end.
"We wanted to put the ball in the air, at least early on in the game. See what we could do from there. That was pretty much the game plan. It’s awesome."
Flacco consistently kept the offense moving as he picked out several different targets, including Clayton for five receptions and 77 yards in his first game back from a strained left hamstring and Heap for five receptions, 74 yards and a nine-yard score.
It was the first 300-yard passing game of Flacco’s career and his most pass attempts ever.
"I think there’s going to be many more of those to come," Heap said. "We just saw the emergence. We just saw the beginning of what he’s capable of."
"Whether we end up throwing more when it’s all said and done, there is no way to predict that," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I think that we’ll be capable of throwing the ball probably in more ways this year than we did last year."
Plus, the Ravens rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns on 41 carries as Rice produced his second 100-yard game of his career as he rushed for 108 yards on 19 carries. A former Pro Bowl runner, McGahee rushed for a one-yard touchdown to give the Ravens some breathing room with 31 seconds to play.
"It wasn’t pretty, but it was us," Rice said. "For three quarters, it was tight. We faced adversity. If you face stuff like this early, you go home and correct it. I think we established a home character.
"We play like Ravens, we never quit. Nothing fazes us. We could’ve easily cracked when they went ahead. I know when I got out there, there wasn’t a doubt that we were going to move the ball."
Flacco had some inaccurate moments, though, sailing his throws.
"We didn’t take advantage of every opportunity early in the game," Harbaugh said. "As the game went on, the story was us answering. They went ahead, we answered. They tied the game, we answered. They tied the game again, but we answered and then we answered again to put it away.
"Our defense got the stop in the end. That’s what we’re most proud of. Obviously, we have so many things to work on in all three phases, special teams, offense and defense."
The Chiefs didn’t produce a first down until two minutes were left in the first half.
For the game, Kansas City gained just 188 yards.
The biggest problems were on special teams as Chiefs safety Jon McCraw busted through the gap between the center and the right guard to block Sam Koch’s punt and recover it for a touchdown.
"It was just a miscommunication," special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "One of the guys didn’t block who they were supposed to block and those things can happen early in the season and sometimes you can get away with it and not give up a block.
"They got us when there’s still some communication issues. It’s something we should have picked up and shouldn’t have messed up, but those guys get paid, too, on the other side."
Plus, Hauschka flubbed a field goal in the wind.
It was his first regular-season game as the replacement for veteran Matt Stover.
"I think the wind took the ball, but the reason it did is because I didn’t hit the ball clean," Hauschka said. "You have to hit it clean or it gets broken up by the wind. I need to learn to hit them more confidently in the wind. I’m just glad it didn’t cost us and we got out of there with a win. It’s good to get used to the nerves."
On the decisive touchdown, Flacco beat a nine-man blitz to find Clayton behind Brandon Carr on a post pattern.
Clayton displayed no issues with his leg as he accelerated away from Carr to get into the end zone.
"Just had a post on and that was the perfect call, man," Clayton said. "Caught the defense in the perfect coverage, and we were able to execute the throw and catch."
Then, the defense flexed its muscles on the Chiefs’ ensuing drive with outside linebacker Jarret Johnson sacking Croyle for the second time on the first play. A forced fumble was recovered by Terrell Suggs, but the officials determined after an instant-replay review that Croyle’s forearm was down and caused the fumble.
Three plays later, defensive end Trevor Pryce sacked Croyle to give the football back to Baltimore on downs at the Chiefs’ 9-yard line.
"At the end, they’re backed up and it seems like you have the advantage," Johnson said. "But if they get one first down and get rolling, you’ve got problems."
After taking over possession, McGahee ran the football three times in a row to get into the end zone.
Rather than have Hauschka attempt a chip-shot field goal, the Ravens opted to stick with McGahee on the ground.
In the Ravens’ estimation, the risk of a blocked kick outweighed the reward of a field goal try.
"More things can happen on a field goal than any other kind of play," Harbaugh said. "We’re fourth-and-six inches, I think we have a better chance of making the touchdown than we do of something bad happening on the field goal. They could actually block a kick and score a touchdown, worst-case scenario.
"So, you weigh all that stuff and you decide that’s the lowest-risk possibility to give us the best chance to win the game. If for some reason they stop us, they have to go 99 2/3 yards to score a touchdown."
One year removed from an 11-5 season and an AFC championship game appearance, the Ravens were expected to blow Kansas City out. They entered the game established as a 13-point favorite.
Did the Ravens take the Chiefs too lightly?
"I don’t think we were underestimating them," Heap said. "Everybody was expecting the game to go one way. I think in our heads we thought the game would go one way as well, but you can never overlook any team."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.