CLEVELAND (AP) — When the pushing, shoving, finger pointing and customary taunting ended, and after his team rallied to pull out a difficult division win, Baltimore coach Jim Harbaugh was exhausted and relieved.
“Whew, he said. “That was a fight.”
One the Ravens usually win.
Regrouping in the fourth quarter after failing to gain a single yard in the third, the Ravens got a 19-yard go-ahead touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith with 4:26 to play Sunday and Baltimore’s defense shut down Cleveland in the closing minutes for a 25-15 victory over the Browns.
It was Baltimore’s 10th straight win over their division rival, and the Ravens’ 11th consecutive victory inside one of the NFL’s toughest divisions.
The Ravens (6-2) blew a 14-point lead, fell behind by one point in the fourth and finally made enough plays down the stretch to put away the Browns (2-7), who were unable to score a touchdown despite five trips inside Baltimore’s 20-yard line and came up short again.
“That’s been the tale of the season so far,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “We get so close, and for whatever reason when the game’s on the line, whether it’s defensively or offensively, we can’t seem to make that play.”
Smith caught Flacco’s strike and spun away from cornerback Joe Haden as the Ravens, who were throttled by 30 points at Houston two weeks ago, improved to 5-0 after a bye week under Harbaugh, now 10-0 against Cleveland since 2008.
After scoring TDs on runs by Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce on their first two possessions, the Ravens looked as if they might have an easy afternoon. But Cleveland’s defense shut Baltimore down and Phil Dawson’s fifth field goal, a 41-yarder with 8:48 left, gave the Browns a 15-14 lead.
The Ravens were in trouble. Flacco rescued them.
“Joe never blinked,” Rice said.
Baltimore went six straight possessions without a first down when Flacco finally ended the drought by completing a 21-yard pass to Anquan Boldin on second-and-10 from Cleveland’s 19.
“You need a play to get yourself going,” Flacco said of his throw to Boldin. “That was a good one.”
Two plays later, the Ravens caught a break when Browns safety T.J. Ward was called for roughing Flacco on a second-down blitz. Ward contested he did not hit Flacco in the head as the officials ruled.
“My chest hit him in the shoulder,” Ward said. “My arm hit him in the back shoulder. I didn’t touch his head or anything.”
After Rice moved the ball closer to the end zone with two 10-yard runs, Flacco fired a slant pass on third-and-10 to Smith, who wheeled away from a flat-footed Haden and sprinted into the end zone to make it 20-15. The Ravens then converted the 2-point try with Flacco hitting a wide-open Boldin to extend the lead to seven.
Cleveland had plenty of time left and two timeouts to mount a comeback. But facing a fourth-and-2 at his own 28, Browns coach Pat Shurmur, who chose to punt two weeks ago at Indianapolis in similar circumstances, decided to go for it with 3:53 remaining.
However, rookie Brandon Weeden’s pass for Greg Little was incomplete and the Ravens took over.
“I felt like we had a play that we liked and we didn’t execute it,” Shurmur said, who got defensive when pressed on his decision. “Had we converted and moved forward, then it would have been talked about on what a gutsy move it was, right?
Baltimore’s Justin Tucker kicked a 43-yard field goal to put the Ravens up by 10.
The Browns’ last chance ended when safety Ed Reed intercepted Weeden, who went 20 of 37 for 176 yards and two interceptions in an up-and-down performance for the 29-year-old.
Weeden’s best throw of the game was called back.
With the Browns trailing 14-12, Weeden drilled an apparent 18-yard TD pass to rookie Josh Gordon, but the play was nullified by an illegal formation penalty because running back Chris Ogbonnaya didn’t line up far enough off the line of scrimmage.
“It’s frustrating,” said running back Trent Richardson, who gained 105 yards. “But we can’t point fingers. We all have to be accountable for what we do. I’ve got to run harder. We gotta make better calls. We have to make sure we pick up blocks and catch the ball, and we have to do the right things.
“Once you’re in the red zone, you gotta score some kind of way. You’ve got to get in the end zone.”
Flacco finished 15 of 24 for 153 yards. He completed his first 10 passes, but Cleveland’s defense shut him and the Ravens down for most of the second half until the final TD drive.
“We started fast and finished strong,” Harbaugh said. “In the middle, it was a little iffy there. But the thing I was proud of, our guys played with faith in one another. When the offense was struggling, the defense wasn’t. When the defense struggled, the offense wasn’t.
“We came together at the end to win.”
The Browns gave it all they had, but it wasn’t enough. They’ll have to wait until next year for another shot at the Ravens, who at times turned the game into a street fight.
“They’re a nasty team,” Ward said. “That’s just how they play, and I think they get away with a lot on that side of the ball.”
And is usually the case, the Ravens got away with a win.
NOTES: Baltimore has won 15 straight after a loss. … Richardson is the first rookie to run for more than 100 yards against the Ravens since Jacksonville’s Fred Taylor in 1998. Following the game, he and Rice exchanged jerseys on the field. “It felt good to trade jerseys with a beast in Trent Richardson,” said Rice, who had 98 yards. “There’s a mutual respect on both ends.” … Dawson is 17 for 17 this season and has made 23 in a row since last season. The NFL record is 42, held by Colts K Mike Vanderjagt. … Browns KR Josh Cribbs became the NFL’s career leader in kickoff return yards with one team. Cribbs has 9,638 yards with Cleveland. Brian Mitchell had 9,586 with Washington.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)