If the Ravens are going to make a championship run, they first have to learn how not to trip over themselves.
A week after the offense gave the season opener away with turnovers, the Ravens defense needed a late Ray Lewis interception in the end zone to avoid a dramatic fourth-quarter collapse and escape with a 20-13 victory over the New York Jets before an anxious 71,246 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Holding a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Ravens sweated out the final two minutes because of uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns. Missed tackles, shoddy coverage and an untimely penalty put New York in prime position to send the game into overtime.
Backup quarterback Kellen Clemens, who was replacing an injured Chad Pennington, marched the Jets to the Ravens' 7-yard line before his final pass went off the outstretched hands of Justin McCareins in the end zone and fell into the arms of Lewis.
In the end, only three miscues by the Jets around the goal line (two drops by McCareins and a low throw by Clemens) allowed the Ravens to even their record at 1-1.
"Nothing's ever easy for us," said Lewis, who played with strained triceps in his right arm. "I've learned that when you get someone down, you have to put them away. But the bottom line is we won. No ifs, ands or buts. We won."
For three quarters, the Ravens dominated the Jets behind their usually relentless defense and the inspired play of backup quarterback Kyle Boller, who replaced an injured Steve McNair (sore groin) for his first start in 20 months.
But the Ravens nearly melted down once tight end Chris Baker scored a 3-yard touchdown to close the Jets to 20-13 with 3:12 left in the game.
After the Ravens barely recovered an onside kick, coach Brian Billick decided to pass the ball on first down instead of running it, which would have used up clock and forced the Jets to call timeouts.
On the questionable play call - which followed a series of ones from last week - Boller's pass was incomplete to receiver Demetrius Williams, who leapt high on the sideline, came down hard and bruised his arm. The Ravens subsequently punted, giving the ball back to New York after using 34 seconds of the clock.
"We took a shot," Billick said.
The Jets capitalized on the first play, when Jerricho Cotchery broke free for a 50-yard catch after Ravens safety Ed Reed failed to wrap him up 14 yards downfield.
After the two-minute warning, a wide-open McCareins dropped a pass 7 yards from the end zone. But with the Jets facing a third-and-16, Ravens defensive back Gerome Sapp was called for holding, giving New York a first down at the Ravens' 31.
Clemens then one-hopped a throw to a wide-open Laveranues Coles, who had turned around safety Dawan Landry with a move, around the goal line. Coles later caught a 24-yard pass to get the Jets to the Ravens' 7, but New York couldn't convert.
On second-and-goal, Clemens' pass deflected off McCareins' hands, and Lewis intercepted it to preserve the win with 1:03 remaining in the game.
"This is a great defense, but they get paid also," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. "Next time, we have to show that killer instinct and put teams away. When you got them down, you got to bury them."
For the first three quarters, the Ravens' defense held the Jets to 107 total yards and a field goal. In the fourth quarter, the Ravens allowed 197 yards and 10 points.
"We can't help teams beat us," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Down the stretch, we have to play fundamental football. If we do that, we'll be all right."
In a strange role reversal, the Ravens' defense can learn from their offense, which bounced back from six turnovers in the season opener.
Without McNair and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (toe), the Ravens offense followed the lead of Boller.
Criticized for his inconsistency during his three-year run as starter, Boller showed composure, hitting 23 of 35 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
"I have a real understanding of the offense," Boller said. "It should be this way in my fifth year. I would expect it to be that way. But I still have a lot of work to do."
On the Ravens' third series, Boller completed all six of his passes, accounting for 53 of the 65 yards on the drive and showing control throughout. Capping the 11-play drive with a touchdown, he rolled out to his right, waited for Jets linebacker Bryan Thomas to rush and threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to an uncovered Willis McGahee.
"I can do whatever they want me to do when my number's called," said McGahee, who rushed 26 times for 97 yards in addition to scoring his first career receiving touchdown. "I was like, whatever you do Willis, do not drop this ball. You will not get another chance like this."
Both teams traded field goals in the second quarter - Boller was nearly intercepted on the Ravens' field-goal drive - before the Ravens caught a break just before halftime.
Boller's 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap was initially ruled incomplete until the officials reviewed the film. The replay showed that Heap dragged his right foot inbounds on the left side of the end zone, giving the Ravens a 17-3 lead with six seconds left in the second quarter.
It was a rewarding reversal for Heap, who had a game-tying touchdown negated six days ago in Cincinnati when officials called a questionable pass interference penalty on him.
"They tried to take that one away from me," Heap said with a laugh. "It was close. I tried to get my feet in as best I could."
Although that lead barely held up, the Ravens showed they could win without being at full strength.
The Ravens entered the game with eight players listed as questionable and lost defensive lineman Trevor Pryce in the third quarter with a broken wrist.
"[This effort] says we're a pretty resilient team," Heap said. "Everybody was asking last week, 'What are you going to do?' The next guy steps up. You're not going to throw in the towel and give up. To win a ballgame in that fashion can only help us out in the long run."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun