They lost numerous contributors to injuries, surrendered another huge play on special teams and allowed a four-win Cleveland Browns team to turn what appeared to be a Christmas Eve cakewalk into a tense fourth quarter.
But as the Ravens exited the home locker room late Saturday afternoon for what they hope won't be the final time this season, they had accomplished a significant goal and put themselves in position to achieve an even bigger one.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers also having won Saturday, the Ravens (11-4) know they'll have to prevail next Sunday at the Cincinnati Bengals to win the AFC North, capture a first-round bye and play host to a second-round playoff game. They'll need to beat the Bengals and have the New England Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills to capture the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout.
Meanwhile, the Bengals would get the AFC's final wild-card spot with a win.
"It's going to be a war, man," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "They are fighting for their lives. We're fighting for the division. So it's going to be a playoff game."
In their latest victory, the Ravens made things much tougher on themselves than they needed to be, especially after they took a 20-0 advantage with 5:50 left in the third quarter, thanks to third-down touchdown passes from Joe Flacco to tight end Ed Dickson and running back Ray Rice and two field goals by Shayne Graham.
The Browns, who spent much of the first three quarters stumbling on offense and missing tackles on defense, were jump-started by Joshua Cribbs' 84-yard punt-return touchdown. After Flacco was intercepted in the end zone, the Browns drove 80 yards and scored on Seneca Wallace's 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore to make it 20-14.
However, the Browns (4-11) were stopped on fourth down on their next drive when Brendon Ayanbadejo pushed running back Peyton Hillis out of bounds after no gain. The Ravens were able to run out the clock after an encroachment penalty on rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor on fourth-and-2 from Cleveland's 37-yard line. Flacco had no intention of running a play, but he was able to draw the Browns' offside with a hard count.
"Sometimes we say it's not perfect and it's not pretty, and it was not, but in this league and this environment against this football team, the Cleveland Browns -- they made it tough on a lot of people this year -- our guys found a way to win the game at the end, and that's what counts," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Eight-and-0 at home for the first time in the history of the franchise is a tremendous accomplishment."
Harbaugh awarded the game ball from the day to the Ravens' fans. It will be displayed prominently at the team's complex in Owings Mills.
"I've never been perfect at home in 16 years of football, and that's amazing because as good of teams as we've had here, we've always found a way to lose one or two, here or there," inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "But I think this year, we really made our focus on taking care of home. This is the result of it: being able to go 8-0 and sitting where you want to sit at the end of the day."
The victory, the Ravens' eighth straight against the Browns, did come at a significant cost. Right guard Marshal Yanda, perhaps the Ravens' best offensive lineman, left the game in the first half with what Harbaugh described as a "rib contusion of some kind" and did not return. Starting Cornerback Cary Williams left for good in the first half with a concussion, the same injury that knocked reserve linebacker Dannell Ellerbe from the game in the second half.
Already playing the final two weeks without Anquan Boldin, who had knee surgery Thursday, the Ravens lost fellow wide receiver David Reed for the rest of the season with a significant left-knee injury. Reed, who was hurt on his 30-yard kick return to start the second half, will have an MRI in the next couple of days, but the belief is that he sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The Ravens will not only have to heal, but they'll also have to figure out how to correct several problems that arose in Saturday's game. Playing without defensive end Cory Redding (ankle), the Ravens allowed Hillis to rush for 112 yards on 24 carries in an otherwise solid defensive effort that included an interception by Lardarius Webb and two sacks of Wallace.
The special teams essentially gave the Browns an invitation back into the game by permitting the always-dangerous Cribbs to go 84 yards for the touchdown with 3:07 left in the third quarter.
"It was not good coverage, it was not a good punt and we have to do better than that," Harbaugh said. "That's really what got them back in the game."
Offensively, the Ravens, who had rushed for 290 yards against the Browns in the first meeting this season, had 162 yards on the ground this time and only 122 yards through the air. Flacco was 11-for-24 for 132 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
With Boldin unavailable, Flacco completed only two passes to wide receivers, both going to rookie Torrey Smith, and Dickson had two drops that would have extended drives.
"I was definitely disappointed out there just because it's not big things that we didn't do," Flacco said. "It was just little things that we didn't do very well in the second half, and it could've gotten us beat."
Flacco's two touchdown passes were things of beauty as he hit Dickson on third-and-goal from 5 yards for the game's first score, then connected with Rice on a wheel route for a 42-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. Both touchdown passes beat Browns linebacker and top tackler D'Qwell Jackson (Maryland).
"They controlled the game, for the most part, running the ball," Jackson said. "The first half, it was a different team in this locker room. It's a handful of plays that you have an opportunity to make a difference. It told the story of the entire season."
Taylor, in fact, provided a perfect microcosm of the Browns' season when he jumped offside with two minutes to play. It couldn't have been more obvious that the Ravens were simply trying to get the Browns to jump and were ready to let Sam Koch punt if they didn't.
"I don't know if I've ever been in position for that to happen," Flacco said. "It's never worked."
After three kneel-downs by Flacco, the Ravens had the 8-0 finish to their home regular season and a scenario that they would have gladly taken when the season began: one game left with a chance to win their division, get a first-round bye and secure a second-round home playoff game.
"We want a chance at winning, and you've got a better chance to do it when you're at home," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was quiet for a second consecutive game. "And our fans, like I said, I consider myself to be a player of the people, and we are our best team when we're in M&T and our fans are rocking. So we definitely need a home playoff game by any means necessary."
Game 15: Ravens sitting pretty even if win wasn't
They hold off Browns, secure 8-0 regular season at home and can clinch first-round bye with victory over Bengals
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