A week after brushing the critics off his back, Kyle Boller placed his offense squarely on it.
Throwing two critical touchdown passes in the third quarter, the second-year quarterback strong-armed the Ravens to a 30-10 rout of the bumbling Dallas Cowboys yesterday before 69,924 at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens' third straight win put them at 7-3 for the first time in the franchise's nine-year history -- keeping them within two games of the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers -- and placed Boller in uncharted territory as well.
In a matter of two weeks, Boller has gone from a quarterback who couldn't win a game to one who is doing so with ease.
If there's any lingering doubt about Boller's rapid maturation, he quashed it with authority, whether it was his touchdown pass to a fourth-string tight end, his improvised call on his next scoring pass or his taking total control of an offense without its centerpiece, injured running back Jamal Lewis.
"It's all about our quarterback," receiver Kevin Johnson said. "Anytime you have the team's confidence going as well as the quarterback's confidence, it's a great show. Anytime you have your quarterback feeling that way, even with a healthy Jamal, you've got to let loose and he did an excellent job with the pressure.
"Games are going to get tougher down the road. When you've got your quarterback playing the way he played, it gives us a chance anytime we line up on the football field."
In a scene that spoke volumes about the Ravens' current identity, Lewis lobbied on the sideline to go back in the game after spraining his right ankle in the first quarter but the coaching staff felt no reason to risk it.
An offense that once solely relied on the reigning NFL rushing champion proved it not only could survive without him, it could thrive without him.
Boller completed 23 of 34 passes (68 percent) for 232 yards and accounted for all but 50 yards of the Ravens' total offense. Lewis, who walked with a limp in the locker room, said he would be able to play Sunday in New England.
"I'm the quarterback out there," Boller said. "It's my job to go out there and lead the team."
He said he told the team at halftime: "We've got two quarters and we're going to go out there and score 21 points."
That determination surfaced in the third quarter when the Ravens turned a 3-0 deficit into a 14-3 lead in a matter of minutes. Passing the ball on 11 of 15 plays, Boller marched the Ravens on consecutive touchdown drives of 78 and 63 yards.
His 17-yard scoring pass to Darnell Dinkins was zipped between two defenders on a drive that showed the depth of Boller's confidence. He connected three times on that series with Dinkins, whose first career touchdown came as a result of injuries to Todd Heap (ankle) and Terry Jones (shoulder numbness).
After an Ed Reed interception (his third straight game with one) set up the Ravens at their 37-yard line, Boller hit Travis Taylor on a 19-yard pass before demonstrating his ownership of the offense. Knowing that Dallas rookie cornerback Lance Frazier jumped on a slant route earlier in the game, Boller took it upon himself to change Johnson's route in the huddle to a slant-and-go, a double move that allowed Johnson to run free down the left sideline.
Scoring from the 31, Johnson made the over-the-shoulder catch on a perfectly placed pass, giving Boller his fourth touchdown in two games. In his first eight games of the season, Boller had three touchdown passes.
"The way his demeanor is inside the huddle, you can see his confidence getting stronger and stronger," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "He's becoming 'The Guy.'"
Lost in the emergence of Boller has been the continued dominance of the Ravens' defense.
The Cowboys (3-7) were limited to a season-low 222 yards of total offense and were held without a first down on eight of 14 drives. They penetrated past the Ravens' 37-yard line just twice.
"Our intensity is so high right now, especially in the second half, I don't see a lot of teams that can match it," said linebacker Ed Hartwell, who made a team-high 13 tackles.
A quarter after Reed's sixth interception shifted the momentum, the defense sealed the Ravens' largest margin of victory this season.
Four minutes into the fourth quarter, nickel back Chad Williams picked off Vinny Testaverde and ran the ball back 44 yards. The Ravens' fourth interception return for a touchdown this year gave them a 24-3 lead.
Replacing an injured Testaverde, Drew Henson got a rough initiation by the Ravens' defense. The Dallas backup was stripped by Marques Douglas on his first NFL snap, and the Ravens scored two plays later on a 1-yard run by Chester Taylor.
"We have a defense with an offensive mentality," Williams said. "When we get the ball, we're trying to score. That puts more pressure on the offense to try to keep the ball and not give up points. You never hear an offense trying not to give up points. But with our defense, offenses have to take that approach."
After roughing up the struggling Cowboys, the Ravens will see how far they have grown Sunday in New England. Winners of five of their past six games to remain in the AFC wild-card hunt, the Ravens will measure themselves against the Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions.
But judging how the Ravens are talking, the Patriots are the ones being put on notice.
"It's going to be tough [to beat us]," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "With the way Kyle is playing and the way our defense is playing, it's a scary sight to see."
With six to go
This is the Ravens' best record after 10 games in their history. A look at how they've fared at the same point and their final records:
Year, 10 games, Finish
1996, 3-7, 4-12
1997, 4-6, 6-9-1
1998, 4-6, 6-10
1999, 4-6, 8-8
2000, 6-4, 12-4*
2001, 6-4, 10-6*
2002, 4-6, 7-9
2003, 5-5, 10-6*
*-Made playoffsCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun