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CLEVELAND - The NFL's most dramatic prime-time players took another bow on the national stage.
After nearly blowing a 23-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Ravens escaped with a 26-21 victory last night over the Cleveland Browns when rookie safety Ed Reed made an interception in the end zone and ran out the clock. Celebrating on the franchise's old turf, the Ravens seized first place in the AFC North.
"It's a huge win," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Clearly for us to hold onto this slim lead, we can't make the mistakes that let them out of the hole. But to be in first place a quarter of the way into the season, I'll take it.
"I'm a little too old to be surprised by too many things. The maturity these kids have shown and how they have come together, yeah, I have to be a little bit surprised. If we are fortunate enough to be around this thing for a while, it's going to come down to the team who can hold down emotionally in November and December."
Once considered a team rebuilding for the future, the Ravens (2-2) have become the league's premier showstoppers of the present, recording major upsets in consecutive nationally televised games. The Browns (2-3), whose previous two losses came on the final play, fell short again and dropped a half game behind the Ravens.
"We hope everyone doubts us because that's when we play our best," quarterback Chris Redman said. "That's kind of how we are, the quiet assassins. We just go out and play when the odds are against us."
The Ravens' defense had shut out Cleveland for three quarters, but it became vulnerable when star linebacker Ray Lewis strained his left shoulder trying to recover a fumble. Falling onto the ground, Lewis' shoulder popped back out and in while he tried to brace his fall, and he left with 6 1/2 minutes left in the third.
Meanwhile, the Browns thrived off the loss of starting quarterback Tim Couch (mild concussion). Backup Kelly Holcomb picked up for the injured starter by finishing off a touchdown drive of 98 yards. Holcomb directed another scoring drive of 76 yards. His 17-yard pass to Dennis Northcutt closed the margin to 26-21 with 58 seconds left.
Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson then recovered his own onside kick, and the Browns moved the ball to the 17-yard line when they converted a fourth-and-15. With 10 seconds left and Lewis standing on the sideline with arms crossed, Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister tipped an overthrown pass, which landed in the arms of Ed Reed in the end zone.
Reed, the Ravens' first-round draft pick, ran to midfield as the final seconds ticked off the clock, preserving the win. The Ravens, who were swept by the Browns last year because of eight turnovers, turned the tables last night. They converted five turnovers into 13 points.
"I was reading my keys and I knew they had to throw into the end zone," Reed said of his second career interception. "But I was getting worried at the end."
Billick said he wasn't tempted to put Lewis in for the final drive because trainer Bill Tessendorf suggested against it.
"You know Ray wanted to go in," Billick said. "But I don't recognize his medical degree."
Lewis shrugged off the injury, calling it "a bruise" and was more upset at not being able to play at the end.
"It's always frustrating when you can't go back out there and make plays," Lewis said. "You want to go out there. Your energy and competitiveness want to push you out there. But it wasn't smart. The good thing about it was we came out on top."
The Ravens' offense broke out for 409 total yards, with Redman throwing for 208 yards passing and running back Jamal Lewis running for 187 yards, which tied his career high.
The big lead was built because the Ravens made the most of their shots. Redman finished with 208 yards passing but more than a quarter of that total came on two throws, hitting receiver Brandon Stokley down the sideline on touchdown throws of 30 and 35 yards.
As in last Monday night's shocking win over the Denver Broncos, the Ravens' offense didn't awake until the second quarter. In their first possession of that period, the Ravens closed out a methodical drive with a bang, as Stokley caught a 30-yard pass down the right sideline.
After chipping down the field, the Ravens hit with a perfectly designed downfield play to go ahead 7-0 with 9:51 left before halftime. Lining in the slot, Stokley broke free down the sideline after wide-out Ron Johnson ran to the inside to screen Stokley's defender.
Redman, who was five of six for 66 yards in that drive, hit Stokley at the 5, and Stokley beat a diving Earl Little to the end zone. The 84-yard drive - the Ravens' longest of the season - had three third-down conversions and finished in front of the Dawg Pound, taking a bite out of the rowdy Browns fans.
"We had the perfect call at the perfect time," Redman said.
On Cleveland's first play after the touchdown, Ravens free safety Will Demps tipped a Couch pass high in the air and Lewis came down with his second interception of the season. Stover's 43-yard field goal pushed the lead to 10-0 with 5:46 remaining in the second quarter.
The Ravens then closed out the half by capitalizing on another Browns miscue when Little interfered with Ravens tight end Todd Heap at the Cleveland 14. After the 30-yard penalty, the Ravens ran three times and settled for a 28-yard field goal to end the first half with a 13-0 advantage.
In their past two games, the Ravens have outscored their opponents 44-3 in the first half.
The Ravens' defense tightened their grip on the game one minute into the third quarter. After watching Browns receiver Quincy Morgan make a catch, Lewis tracked him down from behind, stripping him and recovering the fumble at the Ravens' 44.
Three plays later, Redman went deep to Stokley again. Running down the left sideline, Stokley pulled in the 35-yard touchdown throw despite cornerback Anthony Henry's hands covering the front of his helmet.
The second-longest throw of Redman's short career staked the Ravens to a 20-0 lead just 1:39 into the third quarter.
Stover's 27-yard field goal late in the third raised the advantage to 23-0 before the Browns rallied with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But in the end, a Ravens team with 17 rookies and without its leader found a way to survive.
"To see the young guys licking their chops after getting that taste of blood, you can see they know what it takes to win now," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "To see where we're at right now and where we started from, this feels incredible."