CLEVELAND — The Baltimore Ravens avoided a potentially major embarrassment on a national stage Monday night, manufacturing a crucial 16-0 victory over the hapless Cleveland Browns that began with yet another plodding, uninspired start.
Following an ugly, scoreless first half that undoubtedly prompted the viewing audience to either change the channel or catch up on their sleep, the Ravens stormed out of the locker room after halftime determined to reverse a bad display of football.
“It was a dogfight,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “It was a tough first half. We played tremendously well on defense throughout the game.”
Seventeen dizzying seconds with two touchdowns scored restored the usual reality for the Ravens and their dysfunctional opponent. Baltimore (5-4) scored twice in the opening minutes of the second half to effectively crush the 1-8 Browns’ hopes of upsetting their AFC North rival.
It was the first shutout for the Ravens since the 2006 season.
“It was an ugly game, but that’s the way some of those wins are in the NFL,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I don’t know if it’s a relief. We’re happy anytime we get a win.”
However, the Ravens’ kicking crisis was on full display as Steve Hauschka flubbed a 36-yard chip shot field goal wide left in the first half and later had a low-trajectory extra point blocked.
Hauschka’s job security is believed to be in serious danger as this marks his third important missed field goal over the past few weeks. The Ravens recently worked out free agent kickers Mike Nugent and Billy Cundiff.
So, what’s next?
“We’ve been evaluating the kicking position,” Harbaugh said. “We had a great talk Tuesday night. He’d be the first to tell you that he has to kick better than that.”
When asked whether he was concerned about possibly being replaced, Hauschka replied: “I’m not really worried about that right now. My job is to go out there and make kicks and I struggled on the first one. I got to come out and make the next one and kick confidently.”
The Ravens’ wakeup call was provided by quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Derrick Mason connecting on a critical 41-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter.
Mason spun out of cornerback Brandon McDonald’s tackle attempt in the open field, dashing up the sideline down to the Browns’ 13-yard line before being pushed out of bounds by safety Abram Elam.
On the ensuing play, running back Ray Rice broke a tackle and busted into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown.
The Ravens weren’t done creating separation from the Browns.
After the kickoff following Rice’s score, Browns quarterback Brady Quinn’s pass was dropped by tight end Robert Royal. And strong safety Dawan Landry pounced on the deflected pass, scooting 48 yards for a touchdown on the interception return.
There was an alarming continuation of the epic kicking struggles of Hauschka as his extra point attempt was blocked by massive Browns nose guard Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers.
“I’m not sure what we’ll see on the film,” Hauschka said. “I thought I hit the ball well and had plenty of elevation. I’m not sure what happened there.”
When asked what Harbaugh said to him on the sidelines, Hauschka said: “He inspired some more confidence in me. He told me that I’m as good as anybody out there and that these are some of the growing pains of a young kicker. I wish it wasn’t like this. I wish it came easy, but sometimes you have to go through it. It’s painful, but we’ll get through it.”
When Matt Stover was the Ravens’ kicker, he made 402 of 403 extra points. The miss occurred on Oct. 27, 1996.
In the first half, Hauschka pushed his kick wide left again as he clearly hooked it. All of his misses have been wide left, including his potential game-winning kick against the in a 33-31 loss to Minnesota Vikings and a key miss in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Yeah, it was definitely disappointing,” Hauschka said. “I’m not going to question anything I’m doing. It’s definitely a disappointing first field goal.
“Sometimes in that range you don’t kick the ball as confidently as you would like to and you just try to guide it through. It was similar to the Cincinnati kick.”
With Harbaugh and holder Sam Koch visibly upset with Hauschka, Hauschka recovered from the setbacks to convert a 44-yard field goal in the third quarter to stake the Ravens to a 16-0 lead.
The field goal was set up by nickel back Chris Carr intercepting Quinn at midfield and returning it to the Browns’ 39-yard line. Quinn was penalized for a low block on the play, a 15-yard infraction.
The scoreless first half extended the Ravens’ streak of games without an offensive touchdown before halftime to five games.
Their last offensive touchdown was a Mason scoring reception on Oct. 4 against the New England Patriots.
Their last first-half touchdown was generated by free safety Ed Reed on Oct. 11 on an interception return against the Bengals.
Once again, the Ravens came out appearing flat, listless and out of sync.
In the first half, they converted only 1 of 6 third downs and just 140 yards of total offense.
“We stumbled a bit in the beginning, but the rest of the season will tell the tale of the season,” Rice said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
The Browns weren’t much better, producing just 97 yards.
However, they seemed to have more life than the Ravens.
The Ravens seemed to be affected emotionally by reserve safety Haruki Nakamura breaking his right ankle on the opening kickoff, an injury expected to end his season.
Baltimore was unable to sustain drives and Flacco was sacked twice in the first half.
Ultimately, Quinn, who was restored to the starting lineup after being benched earlier this season and replaced by Derek Anderson against Baltimore, provided the Ravens with a boost with his ineffectual quarterbacking.
Quinn completed just 13 of 31 passes for 99 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions for a 23.5 passer rating.
Even though he was a bit off his game, Flacco looked sterling by comparison as he completed 13 of 18 passes for 155 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 98.1 rating.
Rice rushed for 89 yards on 20 carries.
For Mason, who caught three passes for 78 yards, it marked another strong game against the Browns and in Monday night games.
He entered the game with 73 career receptions against the Browns for 1,151 yards, his second-most receptions and his most yards against any NFL team. He also entered the game with 90 receptions for 1,151 yards and six touchdowns in Monday night games.
By defeating a one-win Browns team and sweeping the season series for the second year in a row, the Ravens have hardly gotten themselves out of trouble just by outscoring Cleveland 50-3 this season.
Nonetheless, their playoff outlook is still extremely challenging.
They host the undefeated Indianapolis Colts (9-0) next week followed by a home game against the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
With the Bengals (7-2) in firm control of the AFC North, the Ravens are now one game behind the Steelers.
The Steelers (6-3), San Diego Chargers (6-3), Jacksonville Jaguars (5-4) and the Houston Texans (5-4) represent the Ravens’ primary competition for a wild-card spot.
Further first-half struggles like the past six games will make it extremely difficult for the Ravens to emerge as a legitimate playoff contender.
After the Colts and Steelers, the Ravens play the Green Bay Packers in another Monday night game.
“This three-game stretch is probably everything for our season,” Harbaugh said. “Big-picture wise, it’s very important to us.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.