The Baltimore Ravens got out to a commanding 20-0 lead over the Cleveland Browns, stumbled, then prevailed for a 20-14 win that sealed the first undefeated home record in franchise history.
Now, if Baltimore wins next week at Cincinnati, they will clinch their first AFC North division crown since the 2006 season. In doing so, the Ravens would guarantee themselves at least one home playoff game and a first-round bye. However, a loss could mean the Pittsburgh Steelers jump the Ravens, relegating them to the wild-card round and the road.
After the Ravens (11-4) appeared to have the game within their grasp at 20-0, the Browns seized momentum late in the third quarter with a Josh Cribbs career-high 84-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Baltimore and punter Sam Koch tried to pin the Browns inside their own 20, but with gusting winds, the football drifted back to the middle of the field, which gave Cribbs an open field to work with.
It was Cribbs’ 11th return touchdown of his career.
On the Ravens’ very next drive, quarterback Joe Flacco led the offense to the Browns’ 33-yard line before throwing an interception to cornerback Sheldon Brown in the end zone.
The turnover resulted in a 12-play, 80-yard drive for the Browns, capped by quarterback Seneca Wallace’s scrambling six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore.
Seemingly out of nowhere, with just 8:22 remaining on the clock, it was a ballgame at M&T Bank Stadium.
Following the Browns’ first offensive scoring drive of the day, the Ravens followed by going three-out, which included a costly false start by right tackle Michael Oher, adding to Baltimore’s second-half miscues. Earlier in the half, the offense had drives stall due to two glaring drops by second-year tight end Ed Dickson.
Then, with just 3:55 remaining in the game, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo came up when the Ravens defense needed him most, as he drove Browns running back Peyton Hillis out of bounds for no gain on a fourth-and-five pass to the flat.
Because the Browns had burned all three of their timeouts earlier in the half, the Ravens elected to run the ball three straight downs to burn some clock. But the Browns defense rose to the occasion forcing a fourth-and-two.
Following the two-minute warning, head coach John Harbaugh sent the Ravens offense back on the field at the Browns 37-yard line, where Flacco drew rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor offsides with his hard count.
For the Browns, who suffered a seventh consecutive loss on the road, it seemed fitting. At the end of the first half, they demonstrated poor time management skills and allowed the clock to run out despite being positioned at the Ravens’ three-yard line.
Cleveland had no timeouts when Wallace connected with Moore for a two-yard completion on first-and-goal from the five. But rather than killing the clock with a spike or even attempting a single passs to the end zone, they ran Hillis on a wide sweep.
Before they could get set for another snap, the half ended with the Ravens leading 17-0.
At that moment in the game, it didn’t seem like much of a break for the Ravens. Baltimore started quick, scoring on their opening drive courtesy of a Flacco five-yard touchdown pass to Ed Dickson, which was set up by a 60-yard pass interference call against Mike Adams for coverage against Torrey Smith. Dickson got a step behind middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in the back of the end zone.
In the second quarter, Jackson was burnt by running back Ray Rice on a long 42-yard touchdown reception. Entering week 16 as the NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage (1,734), Rice added 135 (87 rushing, 48 receiving) on Saturday.
Baltimore also received two field goals off the foot of Shayne Graham (48, 43 yards), signed earlier in the week to fill-in for Billy Cundiff, who continues to battle an injured left-calf.
Now, the Ravens will travel to Cincinnati for a rematch against a Bengals team looking to clinch the AFC’s final wildcard spot. With a win this past Saturday combined with a Jets loss to the Giants, the Bengals leapfrogged the Jets for the conference’s final wildcard spot. So, if the Bengals can find a way to knock off the Ravens, regardless of what happens in the AFC next week, the Bengals will clinch the the conference’s final wildcard spot.
On the flip side–a Baltimore win–and the Ravens will wrap up a much needed first-round bye and the chance to host at least one home playoff game.