By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun
8:15 PM PST, December 4, 2011
CLEVELAND -- By game's end, Ray Rice's uniform pants matched the color of the field at Cleveland Browns Stadium. His jersey was a soggy mess, and his body bore the brunt of getting taken to the ground more than 30 times.
Rice, however, couldn't have felt any better Sunday, nor could have the Ravens, who finally found the formula for breaking the spirit of an overmatched team on the road.
Rice gained 204 of his team's 290 rushing yards and scored one of its two rushing touchdowns as the Ravens bullied the struggling Browns in a 24-10 victory in front of an announced 63,648, though there were nowhere near that many people who witnessed a game played in high winds and persistent rain.
Rice clearly wasn't bothered by the conditions, as he needed just 29 carries to set a personal career high in rushing yards and author the fourth-best rushing performance in team history. Three of the Ravens' top four rushing performances all time have come against Cleveland.
"I get all the glory because I had all the yards, but my offensive line and the receivers blocking down the field is how big plays happen," Rice said, who had 107 yards rushing in the first half and 97 in the second half. He also caught two balls for 10 yards. "Weather conditions did play a part, but it was a total team effort."
It was also a total teamwide commitment to the run, something the Ravens were accused of lacking during disappointing road losses to the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks. In those three games, Rice totaled 26 carries, three fewer than he got Sunday.
The Ravens' 55 rushes set a franchise record, and their 290 yards on the ground were the third most for the team. Ricky Williams, Rice's backup, had 76 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who has never lost to Cleveland in his career, threw the ball just 23 times, and that was just fine with him.
"We were running downhill on these guys all day," Flacco said. "These guys were working. Our offensive line was just in there playing a physical game. That's the way it goes sometimes. We had success and we kept having success."
The game plan was partly born out of necessity because of the wet and sloppy conditions, which made gaining traction and gripping the football difficult. But perhaps, that would have been the call anyway, considering the Browns (4-8) entered the game with the third-worst run defense in the NFL and had recently lost one of their best linebackers, Scott Fujita, to a season-ending injury.
"The guys up front did a great job. Ray did a good job of hitting those holes," Ravens fullback Vonta Leach said. "Obviously, with the weather the way it was and the field the way it was, you got to come in here and run the ball. We established the run and we kept with it."
And because of that, a 68-yard punt return touchdown for Lardarius Webb and another stout defensive effort without Ray Lewis, the Ravens (9-3) beat the Browns for a seventh consecutive time, tied their best start in franchise history, kept pace with the also-victorious New England Patriots and Houston Texans for the top seed in the AFC, and maintained their edge over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. The two teams have the same record, but the Ravens own the tiebreaker based on winning both games against the Steelers.
"I think it was won up front on both sides, offensive and defensive line," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "First, the defensive line, we had to stop Peyton Hillis and that running attack. I think as the game went on we got even stronger doing that. Colt McCoy is a heck of a quarterback. They've got some weapons out there, but he didn't really have a lot of time to find them back there except for really one play. Offensively, obviously the offensive line, Vonta, the two running backs, the physical nature of how we played on this kind of a field in these kinds of conditions was a difference in the game."
The Ravens outgained the Browns 448-233. They won the time-of-possession battle by more than 15 minutes. They had three sacks of McCoy, while Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was only sacked once, fumbling on the play. That set up a 21-yard field goal by Browns kicker Phil Dawson, a moral victory for the visitors because Cleveland had gotten the ball down to the Ravens' 5-yard line on McCoy's 52-yard completion to Hillis.
Cleveland scored its only touchdown on McCoy's 22-yard pass to Evan Moore with 4:22 to play, but all that did was cut the Ravens' lead to 24-10.
"We got whipped by a good football team," Browns wide receiver and return specialist Joshua Cribbs said.
Despite the lopsided nature of the statistics and the general feeling that the Ravens were in complete control throughout, they actually led by only a touchdown with 5:55 remaining in the third quarter. To that point, Billy Cundiff had missed two field goals, and the Ravens had gotten inside the Browns' 30 five times and had only 10 points to show for it.
But after Dawson's 21-yard field goal trimmed the Browns' deficit to 10-3, the Ravens needed just one play to re-establish their dominance. With his team on its own 27, Flacco handed to Rice, who started with an off-tackle run to the left side and then cut to the right, where wide receiver Anquan Boldin was pushing his defender down the field. The Browns didn't get Rice down until he was all the way to the 6-yard line. Two plays later, Williams plunged in for a 1-yard touchdown.
Harbaugh called the 67-yard run, the longest of Rice's regular-season career, a "huge answer."
"I think as a veteran on this team and as a leader, I think we had to get back to what was working and that was the run game," Rice said, who has 926 yards rushing on the season with 11 touchdowns, nine of them on the ground. "So when he called that play, I said, 'It's now or never.' We had to make a play then and there. Then we were up by two scores. That's the difference. That was the turning point in the game. Then, obviously, Webb with the punt return, that was big."
Webb fielded a low, short punt by Brad Maynard, darted in and around several defenders, and then did a forward tumble into the end zone to give the Ravens a 24-3 lead with 6:58 to play. It was an athletic exclamation to a game that the Ravens took over early with brute force and aggression.
Thirteen of their 16 plays in the first quarter were runs. By halftime, 28 of their 42 plays were rushes, and that certainly carried over to the second half, when the Ravens wore the Browns down.
"That's what we need to do," said center Matt Birk, who left the game for one drive with a right shoulder injury but returned. "It was that kind of game. As an offense, we were able to run the ball. We wanted to get a win, all the talk about letdowns and things like that, we passed the test. We were successful. Next week is a new test."
That test is an 0-12 Indianapolis Colts team at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens haven't lost this year.
"We control our own destiny," Rice said. "Regardless of who we play, we have to take care of business."
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