For much of the first three weeks, opposing quarterbacks had found Ravens' cornerback Cary Williams. They watched where he lined up and often threw in that direction.
But with the Ravens' holding onto a precarious six-point lead late in the third quarter Thursday, Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden lost sight of Williams and the result was the game's decisive play. Williams stepped in front of wide receiver Travis Benjamin in the flat and took the ball back 63 yards for a touchdown, his first career interception helping the Ravens turn aside the pesky Browns, 23-16, before an announced 70,944 in a game played in a steady rain storm.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was glad I was able to recognize the route and the formation and I was glad to make the play," Williams said.
The interception gave the Ravens a 23-10 lead, which was ultimately whittled down to seven on two 50-plus yard field goals by veteran Phil Dawson.
"Cary Williams was the difference in the game with an interception for a touchdown,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Here's a guy that was under a lot of heat from [the media]. But he wasn't under heat in our building because we know what kind of player he is and he came up big. I think he deserved that."
Weeden, who threw for 320 yards, got the ball back at his own 10 with just over a minute to go and got all the way down to the Ravens' 18 after a personal foul on Paul Kruger prolonged the final drive. However, the rookie's final pass sailed out of the end zone as time expired, securing the Ravens' win.
Even with the presence of the regular officials who made their debut Thursday after settling their differences with the league late Wednesday night, it wasn't a pretty game. The Ravens had 11 penalties for 100 yards, committed a turnover in the red zone, and rookie Justin Tucker missed his first field goal.
However, the Ravens will head into a rare weekend off with a satisfying 3-1 record, two close victories in a five-day span, a nine-game winning streak against the Browns.
"This is the AFC North,” Harbaugh said. “This is the way it goes. It seems like every time we play those guys, this is how it goes. It's tough to win in this league. Sometimes you are going to win and you are going to look great doing it in one phase, two phases or all three phases. Sometimes, you're going to win and it's not going to look great but you have to find a way to win anyway. That's what our guys did."
Flacco was 28-for-46 for 356 yards with one touchdown to Torrey Smith, one rushing touchdown and one interception. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin caught nine passes for 139 yards with all but one of the catches coming in the second half.
Holding an uncomfortable 2-point lead at halftime, the Ravens came out on their first drive of the second half and went 89 yards on 13 plays. The drive mostly belonged to Flacco and Boldin. The veteran wide receiver had an 18-yard reception on second-and-5 and then a 21-yard catch on third-and-7.
A 21-yard reception by Boldin then set up the Ravens in a first-and goal situation from the 2. On third down, Flacco rolled out and juked a defender and went in the end zone untouched for a 2-yard touchdown run to give the Ravens a 16-7 lead with 9:53 to play.
The Browns answered with a 51-yard field goal by veteran Phil Dawson to make it a six-point game. It stayed that way as Tucker was wide right from 47 yards, his first miss of the season.
However, Williams stepped in front of the Weeden's pass on the next Browns' drive to give the Ravens a 13-point lead.
The Ravens offense got off to a sluggish start for the second straight week only to find some rhythm in the second quarter. Their best opportunity in the first quarter came after Dannell Ellerbe drilled punt returner Joshua Cribbs, knocking the ball loose and his helmet off. Cribbs suffered a head injury on the play and did not return.
The fumble gave the Ravens the ball at the Browns' 40. The Ravens got it down to the Cleveland 10 thanks to three straight completions, a 9-yard completion to Rice, a 12-yard connection to Smith and then a 7-yard strike to Rice. However on second down, Flacco, looking to hit Anquan Boldin in the end zone, threw into double coverage and he was intercepted by Craig Robertson.
On the Ravens' next drive, Flacco made amends. On third-and-17 from his 18, Flacco lofted a nice pass to second-year receiver Tandon Doss, who ran under it for a 39-yard gain. The next play, Flacco hit Smith down the right sideline for a 34-yard gain.
The combination connected again, this time with Flacco finding a seam in the Browns' defense and hitting Smith in stride for an 18-yard touchdown pass. Flacco was 4-for-4 for 87 yards on the drive. For Smith, who lost his younger brother in a motorcycle accident the night before the Ravens' victory over the New England Patriots' last Sunday, it was his third touchdown in the past two games.
Holder Sam Koch couldn't handle Morgan Cox's snap on the point after, keeping the Ravens' lead at 6-0 at the 12:57 mark of the second quarter.
Tucker would get his shot to kick on the Ravens' next drive, and his 40-yard field goal attempt was good, expanding the home team's lead to 9-0 and making him 7-for-7 on the season.
The Ravens appeared to be on their way to a rout as linebacker Kruger sacked Weeden to end the ensuing Browns' possession.
However, Browns' defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin sacked Flacco on third down to his team the ball back. Weeden, who was under duress for much of the first half, started the drive at his own 6. He hit tight end Benjamin Watson for 6 yards on third-and-4 to give the Browns their first first down of the second quarter.