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.
The throwback game featured a flamboyant, 83-yard return of an interception for a touchdown by cornerback 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.
The onside kick try failed after the Cardinals committed two penalties. But Blake put the brunt of the loss on his three interceptions, two of which were picked off inside the red zone.
"I kind of brought it upon myself," said Blake, who finished 22-for-36 for 247 yards.
For a quarterback who used to bet his Ravens teammates $500 they couldn't pick him off in practice, yesterday was payback time.
"I think it had a lot to do with knowing Jeff and knowing their offense," said McAlister, who intercepted Blake twice. "At times, they get pretty predictable. Knowing their tendencies and where Blake likes to throw, it kind of helped a lot."
Predictable described the Ravens' offense, too.
The Ravens produced 213 of their 285 yards of total offense (75 percent) on the ground. Boller's 18 attempts and nine completions rank second and third in futility in team history.
His 75 yards passing was the second-lowest in the franchise's eight-year existence and the fewest since 2000, when Dilfer threw for 70 against Arizona.
"I always want the ball in my hands, but I have guys around here that are going to get the ball in their hands, too," Boller said. "It takes a lot of pressure off of me. There's going to be a time when I have to make plays."
Lewis recorded his team-record fourth straight 100-yard game, but the league's leading rusher said he can't carry the load for the entire season.
"We have to really make this a 50-50 offense where we're throwing the ball and running the ball," Lewis said. "That's when we'll really be effective, and that's when it's going to get scary."
The biggest scare of the season came late in the third quarter, when Lewis injured his shoulder. The X-rays taken in the locker room were negative, and Lewis returned without missing a series.
"I was praying that it was nothing big," Lewis said. "It's hurt and not injured."
Behind Lewis, an emerging defense and solid special teams, the Ravens believe yesterday's stroll down memory lane could be their path to the playoffs.
"If that's what it's going to take to win a ballgame," Stover said, "I'm ready to do it again, and I'm ready for the repeat."
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