On a day when the rest of the AFC North failed to escape with last-minute comebacks, the Ravens survived in the end by delivering a familiar - if not excruciating - replay.
Whether they were going on memory or might yesterday, the Ravens forced three turnovers in the fourth quarter, including Ray Lewis' interception with 44 seconds left, to sidestep an upset and ring up a 24-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Just like last Sunday, another big play by Lewis and fourth-quarter turnovers were the major difference. And just like last Sunday, the instant-replay system was a major headache.
Celebration quickly turned into uncomfortable silence for the sellout crowd of 69,486 at M&T Bank Stadium when the referees announced that they needed to review Lewis' diving interception at the Ravens' 9-yard line. Three tense minutes later, Lewis was awarded the pick and the Ravens (5-3) were rewarded with their sixth straight win over the Jaguars (1-7).
"I looked at Coach Billick and said, 'I promise you I caught that football,'" said Ray Lewis, who still had a red mark on his ribs. "When you grab the ball so hard to make sure the referee doesn't overturn it, you kind of squeeze it to your chest and the ground doesn't give. I forgot that."
When asked about his thoughts on instant replay this time around, Ravens coach Brian Billick, who was fined $15,000 two days earlier for his Oct. 19 remarks on officiating, said, "I can't afford to tell you my thoughts."
Yesterday's ugly win has the Ravens sitting pretty in the division at the midway point of the regular season. Suddenly, the AFC North leaders have a two-game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns and a three-game bulge over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The expanded cushion came after a game during which the Ravens lived on the edge.
The Ravens withstood a season-worst effort from the league's leading rusher, Jamal Lewis (68 yards), a season-worst performance from its usually stout run defense (134 yards) and a questionable play call in the fourth quarter.
The hapless Jaguars finished with more first downs (20-9) and more total yards (320-259) than the Ravens. They even had seven trips inside Ravens territory.
"We didn't play really good offensively or defensively," tight end Todd Heap said. "[But] when you come out with a win in a game like that, you have to be happy. We can always get better."
The game seemed to be slipping out of the Ravens' grasp late in the third quarter.
Holding a 10-3 lead, Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller fumbled when fullback Alan Ricard's elbow swung back after a fake. Before Boller could jump on top of his eighth fumble of the season, running back Lewis tried to scoop the ball up but it skipped to the outside.
Jacksonville linebacker Akin Ayodele picked it up and ran 15 yards for the touchdown, tying the game at 10.
On the ensuing kickoff, Lamont Brightful bolted a season-high 58 yards to set up a 32-yard field goal to push the Ravens back ahead, 13-10, with 18 seconds left in the third quarter. The runback swung not only the momentum but also perhaps a disappointing season for Brightful, who had lost his return job to Dedric Ward last week.
"I feel like I've got something to prove every week I go out there," Brightful said. "It feels great when you put pressure on yourself to go out there and prove it to everybody and you come away with a pretty good job."
The Ravens jumped out to a 24-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter by pouncing on rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich.
"We needed a play, and I just bull-rushed down the middle and fortunately got there," Boulware said. "If we want to be a good team, we've got to get pressure. All great defenses get to the quarterback."
After the Ravens' defense surrendered its first touchdown in more than 130 minutes, its offense, which struggled for most of the game, failed to make the fourth quarter any easier.
With 2 1/2 minutes remaining in the game, the Ravens surprisingly called a passing play instead of a run. Boller's overthrown deep pass to Heap stopped the clock at 2:21 when they could have easily wound it down to the two-minute warning.
"That was my call," Billick said. "I wanted to make something happen. They had been moving the ball well; we hadn't. I wanted to take one shot to try to put the game away, and it didn't turn out."
The Ravens' offense was hit-or-miss all game. Boller hit six of his first seven passes for 86 yards and then missed on 12 of his final 16 passes.
The struggles repeatedly surfaced in the red zone, where the Ravens came away with no touchdowns and three field goals in three trips.
"It's one of those things where you're down there and things get a lot tighter," said Boller, who finished 10-for-23 for 156 yards. "You want to make sure you're smart with the ball. Once you get over that hump, we'll know how to do it. Right now, at least we're getting three points out of it. It would be real nice to get seven points."
Failing to convert in close put all the pressure on the defense in the Jaguars' final drive.
After marching 49 yards, Jacksonville faced a third-and-12 at the Ravens' 31 with one minute remaining. Leftwich forced a throw into coverage along the sideline, where safety Will Demps tipped it and Lewis pulled it in.
Lewis made the game-turning interception last week in the win over the Denver Broncos. But when the referees signaled an instant-replay review yesterday, the Ravens were confronted with a more sobering flashback.
"My thoughts were, 'Don't let it happen again,'" said Heap, who had an apparent touchdown taken away by replay last Sunday. "Just watching it, it looked like he had the ball, so I was confident with that. But you never know when it goes up there."
The Ravens' course for the second half appears more certain.
Their third win in four games puts them atop a division at the midway point of the season for the first time in franchise history. The next three weeks pit them against teams with winning records - at St. Louis and Miami and home against Seattle - and should tell them where they figure in the AFC playoff puzzle.
"We're 5-3 at the halfway point, and that's what we've been talking about this whole past week," Heap said. "Now, it's time to hit the second half of the season and hit it running."
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun