With big plays from their offense and defense, the Ravens didn't just prove they are prime-time players last night.
Before a national television audience and the largest crowd in Ravens history (71,438), the Ravens declared they have the makings of being a dangerous team heading into their playoff run after methodically taking care of the Washington Redskins, 24-10, at a chilly M&T Bank Stadium last night.
Two turnovers caused by Ed Reed - an interception on the opening series and a 22-yard fumble return for a touchdown - put the Ravens ahead 14-0 in the first quarter, and a 28-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Derrick Mason squashed a late Washington comeback. Reed added an interception in the fourth quarter.
"I think it's a surprise to everybody else but it's not a surprise to us because we understood way back in March when we started this thing that we have something special," Mason said.
The Ravens (9-4) won for the first time in prime time since 2005, ending their prime-time skid at seven games. But the Ravens have set their sights on something higher now.
After knocking off their local rival Redskins (7-6), the Ravens will play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3), and first place in the AFC North will be on the line.
With three games remaining in the regular season, the Ravens also remain one game ahead of the New England Patriots (8-5) and Miami Dolphins (8-5) for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
"Winning a very tough, physical football game in December is not an easy thing to do," coach John Harbaugh said. "We just said the way to do it is bring a real good football team into the game. That's what our team did."
The Ravens seized control of the game on the opening series, heating up fast at a time when the wind chill was 10 degrees.
On the third play of the game, Ravens defensive end-linebacker Terrell Suggs beat left tackle Chris Samuels and hit the ball just as quarterback Jason Campbell was throwing it.
Reed grabbed the fluttering pass just before it hit the ground and returned his team-leading fourth interception 4 yards to the Ravens' 45-yard line.
Two big plays - a 26-yard pass to Mason and a 21-yard draw by Ray Rice to convert third-and-10 - got the Ravens into the red zone.
Continuing the Ravens' red-zone success, Le'Ron McClain ran into the end zone standing up for an 8-yard touchdown. His team-best eighth score of the season put the Ravens ahead, 7-0, a little more than three minutes into the game.
The Ravens' defense forced a second turnover on its third series of the game.
Reed yanked the ball from running back Clinton Portis (32 yards rushing), who fumbled just before hitting the ground.
Picking up the fumble, Reed ran to the right sideline, where cornerback Samari Rolle cleared room with a block on Campbell. Reed then bounced off another Redskin before backpedaling into the end zone to complete his 22-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
The Redskins challenged the fumble, but referee Terry McAulay ruled that Portis lost possession of the ball before his right elbow hit the ground. Reed's 11th career touchdown - and third this season - increased the Ravens' first-quarter lead to 14-0.
"I was still jogging when I had it and I didn't know if [the officials] were going to blow the whistle or not," Reed said on whether he thought Portis had fumbled. "Once they don't blow the whistle, we're taught to finish the play."
This has been quite a turnaround for Reed, who has been limited this season by a nerve impingement in his neck and a hamstring injury.
The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year went eight games without causing a turnover, marking the second-longest interception drought of his seven-year career.
But Reed has become the defense's top playmaker in the second half of the season. In the past three games, he has delivered five turnovers (four interceptions and one fumble) and two touchdowns.
"Ed Reed has game-changing impact," Harbaugh said. "If he's not an MVP candidate, I don't know who is."
The Redskins got back into the game after a couple of Ravens turnovers.
Flacco's interception led to a 43-yard field goal, ending the Ravens' shutout 1:20 into the fourth quarter.
Willis McGahee's fumble led to Antwaan Randle El's 5-yard touchdown catch, ending an impressive streak by the Ravens' defense. It marked the first offensive touchdown scored against the Ravens in 13quarters, a span of 46 possessions.
That put Washington within 17-10 with 11:27 left in the game. But the Ravens answered with a run-dominated drive - 11 straight run plays were called - before Flacco (10-for-21 for 134 yards) connected with Mason for a 28-yard touchdown, sealing another win.
"It's great to have an offense that can finish like that," Reed said. "Knowing we can finish on both sides is huge."
Winners of seven of their past eight games, the Ravens finish their regular season against three teams with a combined record of 22-17 (.564).
The Ravens face the Steelers at home Sunday before traveling to the Dallas Cowboys (8-5). Their regular-season finale is home against the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9).
"I love where we're at and it's not just because of our record," Mason said. "It's because of the attitude that our guys have. We have bought into what the coaches are preaching. The guys are having fun."