TEMPE, Ariz. - In what was billed as a reunion with their quarterback from a year ago, the Ravens turned the clock back a little further yesterday.
Taking a page from their storybook Super Bowl season, the Ravens delivered a 26-18 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on the wings of a ball-hawking defense, opportunistic special teams and a rugged running game before a sparse crowd of 24,193 at Sun Devil Stadium.
Chris McAlister, a 22-yard runback of a blocked punt by safety Ed Reed and four field goals by kicker Matt Stover.
The defense once again went on the offensive, picking off three passes by former teammate Jeff Blake. The special teams once again swung the momentum, scoring the team's first touchdown of the game.
And the offense was once again a one-trick attack, depending on running back Jamal Lewis (131 yards rushing) to be the workhorse and asking a quarterback donning the No. 8 jersey - whether it's Kyle Boller or Trent Dilfer - to not make mistakes.
By reaching back into their past, the Ravens (3-2) remained a half game ahead of the Cleveland Browns for first place in the AFC North, overcoming the 96-degree heat, the distraction of 50,000 empty seats and the surprisingly pesky Cardinals (1-5).
"It wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "But I liked the way the guys responded the whole game whenever adversity hit. Winning on the road this far away from home under these conditions is a good, solid win for us."
The rust from last week's bye showed in the first half, when the Ravens were stuck in a lull. After allowing Blake to pick them apart for a touchdown on the opening drive, the Ravens stalled in the red zone twice and settled for two short field goals.
The barricade to the end zone was broken late in the second quarter after Reed made an inside move to crash the left side and block the punt by the Cardinals' Scott Player. Reed raced to the left sideline to pick up the block and ran untouched into the end zone.
The third blocked punt of his 21-game career - including his second returned for a score - staked the Ravens to a 16-7 lead with 1:47 left in the first half.
"He's just got that knack," Billick said. "Like Rod Woodson, it goes beyond speed and intuition."
The game seemed like old times for McAlister for all the wrong reasons.
After receiving a 46-yard field goal from Tim Duncan, the Cardinals were 22 yards from taking the lead near the end of the third quarter when McAlister picked off a Blake pass that sailed behind Anquan Boldin.
Sprinting away from the crowd down the left sideline, McAlister pointed the ball with an outstretched arm toward Blake and the Cardinals around the 30-yard line and backpedaled into the end zone. The length-of-the-field score put the Ravens ahead 23-10, and the over-the-top celebration drew a 15-yard taunting penalty.
"At some point, he's going to learn," Billick said. "It's always bittersweet with Chris."
His second interception represented the first big play since he was benched three weeks ago for missing curfew and a team meeting in San Diego.
"The celebration probably had to do with what had been bottled up for the last couple of weeks, but I've got it out of my system now," McAlister said. "It could have cost us had the game been close. It's a lesson to learn from."
The fourth and final field goal by Stover handed the Ravens their biggest lead at 26-10 just four minutes into the fourth quarter but they had to sweat out the final minute of the game.
Blake, the Ravens' starter last year who left after contract talks abruptly broke off, shaved the lead to eight with 15 seconds left in the game, when he threw 12-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Jones. Blake then ran for the 2-point conversion.
Ravens 26, Cardinals 18
Game 5: Ravens take familiar route to win
Special teams touchdown by Reed and defensive TD by McAlister do in Cards; Billick: 'A good, solid win for us'; J. Lewis rushes for 131, Stover kicks 4 field goals as Ravens remain in first
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