The Ravens displayed more desire and passion in one game yesterday than they did in the previous three seasons.
First, running back Errict Rhett talked trash and accidentally screamed into the official's microphone on the field that he was "running like a truck." Injured offensive tackle Harry Swayne limped through play after play late in the game because the team already had lost another starting tackle to injury in the first half. Then, after a special teams tackle late in the game, linebacker Jamie Sharper punched at the air and head-butted teammates.The Ravens overcame injuries as well as obstacles to stun a Georgia Dome crowd of 50,712 when Stoney Case completed a 54-yard touchdown pass deep over the middle to receiver Justin Armour with 12: 31 left in sudden-death overtime for a 19-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
The Ravens high-fived, hugged and then piled onto each other to celebrate their victory on the home field of the defending NFC champions. Maybe, just maybe, after three straight losing seasons and only 18 victories, the Ravens had a breakthrough game against the Falcons (0-4). It is the fourth time in the Ravens' brief history that they have won two consecutive games.
"To fight back the way they had to, this team has got to believe. When you can do that with a slow white guy, you got to believe it means something," said coach Brian Billick, referring to Armour. "The thing I'm most pleased about -- every week we've gotten better. This is a big step for us."
Billick didn't want to hear about the Falcons' not having quarterback Chris Chandler and Pro Bowl running back Jamal Anderson, out with injuries. Or that the Falcons had several defensive starters who were slowed by injuries.
The bottom line is that the Ravens are 2-2 and going to Tennessee next week to face the Titans (3-1), who are tied for the AFC Central lead.
"Maybe we can be a good football team. To come into the defending NFC champion's house and get one, that's something. And that was the same defense I faced in last year's NFC championship game," said Billick, who was offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings last season. "All of this `they're hurt,' no, they were all there."
One thing that is definitely hurting is the Falcons' pride. One season after going to the Super Bowl, they are winless and fading. They had a chance to win the game in regulation, but a holding penalty by left tackle Bob Whitfield against Michael McCrary on a second-and-five from the Ravens' 26 took Atlanta out of field-goal range with 1: 07 left.
That set the stage for the Ravens' late heroics. Faced with a second-and-12 from the Ravens' 46 in overtime, Billick sent Armour long. Falcons safety Eugene Robinson chose to come up on speedster Patrick Johnson crossing the middle, leaving the deep middle open for Armour, who easily beat cornerback Ronnie Bradford. Johnson had beaten the Falcons for a 52-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, and caught two bombs for touchdowns against them in the preseason.
Billick said he made the call because he was already without starting tackles Jonathan Ogden (cervical strain) and Swayne (sprained ankle). Ogden left with 1: 18 remaining in the first half. Swayne went down shortly afterward, but played until late in the fourth quarter. Ogden is questionable for next week, and Swayne is probable. The Ravens were out of linemen when the game ended.
"If I had to, I would have limped back out there like Willis Reed at the Garden," Swayne said.
He didn't have to. The Ravens scored on their third offensive play of the overtime.
"At first, I just wanted to see their configuration," Billick said. "Our offensive line was pretty banged up, so I didn't think we could go on a 10- or 11-play drive. So once they got in the defense we expected, I wanted to take a shot at it. I looked to see if Jermaine [Lewis] was in there, and it was Justin. But the Stanford guy came through for me."
Armour said: "I knew the middle safety was leaving, and the post route is hard to defend one-on-one on the outside. They're not used to seeing a guy like me go deep. I just gave him a nod outside and went for all it was worth."
That was the game-winning play. But the biggest was Johnson's touchdown. Falcons quarterback Danny Kanell's shovel pass to Jammi German was turned into a 30-yard touchdown, which gave Atlanta a 13-3 lead with 3: 32 left in the third quarter.
But four plays later, Case found Johnson down the right sideline for the 52-yard touchdown. After the catch, Johnson stood over fallen cornerback Ray Buchanan, who had coverage on the play. Johnson taunted Buchanan by dancing over him. It looked like the Falcons' Dirty Bird, but Johnson said it was a dance he had practiced with fellow wide receiver Billy Davis last week.
Buchanan responded by slamming Johnson to the ground and delivering several punches to Johnson's helmet. Johnson was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, while Buchanan was called for unnecessary roughness and then ejected. The play provided a huge spark for the Ravens.
"All I can say is that maybe I shouldn't have taunted him," said Johnson, unaware NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was in attendance. "This is only my second year. This is the first big touchdown in the regular season I've had. I didn't mean to taunt him or intimidate him. Next time, I will maintain my composure."
Billick disapproved, but he didn't argue with the result.
"Sure he did," Billick said of Johnson's taunting. "It was a mistake, and hopefully he won't do it again. I hope they fine him."
Then Billick added: "We talked last night about how there would be a moment where we could turn the desperation of the Atlanta Falcons into hopelessness. If you respond the right way, if we go down and make a play, they have to, to a degree, think in their soul and hearts, `Here we go again.' "
Three plays later, Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett stripped running back Byron Hanspard of the ball and safety Kim Herring recovered at the Falcons' 35. Matt Stover eventually converted the turnover into a 26-yard field goal that tied the score at 13 with 10: 14 left in the game.
The Ravens' defense, except for the secondary, dominated the Falcons, who had only 291 yards of total offense. The Ravens entered the game without starting defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, out with a knee injury, and then lost Larry Webster, the other starting defensive tackle, with turf toe in the second quarter.
But the Ravens got sound efforts from reserve tackles Lional Dalton and Martin Chase, holding the Falcons to 52 rushing yards. The Ravens' linebackers are playing as well as any group in the league. Peter Boulware had five tackles, including two sacks, and Sharper, the weak-side linebacker, had seven tackles, not including two on special teams.
And then there was middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who had a game-high 12 tackles and knocked quarterback Tony Graziani out of the game with a concussion after a near sack with 6: 49 left in the half.
The only defensive problem was in the secondary, where missed tackles by Herring and fellow safety Rod Woodson led to German's touchdown run. Cornerbacks DeRon Jenkins and Duane Starks each had problems.
On the other side of the line, so did Case. In his second start, the Ravens quarterback wasn't sharp in the first half and had trouble reading the hot receivers on blitzes up the middle. He overthrew Qadry Ismail on a possible 41-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter and Jermaine Lewis on a possible 21-yard touchdown pass midway in the second.
The Ravens had only 6 net passing yards in the first half, but they had Rhett, who carried the offense with 136 yards rushing on 27 attempts, his third straight game of 100-plus yards.
It was Rhett who kept the offense alive while Case (13 of 27 for 192 yards) was getting in sync. Besides chatting into the official's microphone, Rhett's other comical moment came after he ran for a first down and emerged from the pile swinging uppercuts.
"I can't explain," Rhett said. "I seem to play well at the Georgia Dome and on turf. I love playing here. Beautiful stadium Just getting a win is wonderful. That's the same defense that was in the NFC championship game. To beat those guys is an accomplishment."