The Ravens responded by unifying an oppressive defense with an opportunistic offense, a combination that knocked out the Cleveland Browns in a 16-3 victory yesterday before 70,196 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Instead of angrily bumping into officials, the Ravens pounded out drive after drive, holding onto the ball for 37 minutes to dominate time of possession.
The Ravens' second win in their past three games was short on flash but long on determination, one in which they controlled the game and, more importantly, controlled their emotions.
"We played smarter and played for each other," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "It was a total team effort, and there was no individualism. The thing is we can't go back to where we were last week."
The return of Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer, the starter in the Ravens' January 2001 Super Bowl triumph, brought back the championship look in the Ravens' defense.
The Ravens (2-3) only permitted Cleveland past their 46-yard line once and never any closer than their 7. The Browns (2-3) were limited to a season-low 186 yards.
"We never felt like they could drive the ball down the field on us," Rolle said.
Dilfer, who received a warm reception in pre-game introductions, was cold from the start. On the Browns' first play, he couldn't handle a low, shotgun snap, a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Ray Lewis at the Cleveland 20.
Five plays later, Ravens quarterback Anthony Wright found tight end Todd Heap on a shallow crossing route. Heap finished off the 3-yard touchdown by extending the ball over the goal line with cornerback Daylon McCutcheon on his back.
The Ravens' first touchdown off a turnover represented the only selfish act of the game.
"There was no way I was going to be stopped on the 1-yard line and give the touchdown to Jamal [Lewis]," Heap said with a grin.
The big plays that had been lacking in the first quarter of the season came in a first-half rush.
B.J. Sams' 51-yard punt return - his longest of the season - led to Matt Stover's 39-yard field goal late in the first quarter. Chester Taylor's 52-yard dash - the longest of his career - set up Stover's 27-yarder early in the second quarter.
The 13-0 lead seemed tenuous after Wright was intercepted in the red zone for the second straight game. But the Ravens took the ball right back when Terrell Suggs slapped it out of Dilfer's hand.
Starting at Cleveland's 36, the Ravens ended a haphazard two-minute drill with a 38-yard field goal by Stover, putting them up 16-0 at halftime.
The Ravens' defense forced three turnovers in the game, matching its total in the first four games.
"That's our style of play," Suggs said. "That's the way we've been playing since the franchise moved here."
As a result, three of the Ravens' four scoring drives were 20 yards or fewer. In fact, the Ravens ran 25 of their first 38 plays inside Browns territory and kept the ball for all but nine minutes in the first half.
"It felt like we had the ball forever," said Wright, who finished 23-for-31 passing for 213 yards.
Meanwhile, Dilfer had his worst game of the season. He was 16-for-30 for 147 yards and was responsible for three turnovers, hardly evoking memories of his glory days with the Ravens.
"It doesn't matter who was at quarterback or what team you were playing, we needed to get a win here today," said Ravens linebacker Tommy Polley, who had 1 1/2 sacks. "Everybody was doubting us, but we stuck together as a team all week."
The biggest test for the Ravens came with about three minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Ray Lewis was penalized for a questionable late hit out of bounds, the type of call that had set the Ravens off in last Sunday's 21-penalty debacle in Detroit. This time, rather than complain to the officials, the Ravens took their frustration out on Cleveland.
On the next play, Suggs came from the blind side to hit Dilfer, whose wobbly pass was picked off by Lewis. It was Lewis' first interception since the 2003 season finale.
"It goes to show that you learn from your mistakes," Suggs said. "We just calmed down and, boom, got the turnover."
The theme of the game began before it started. Suggs, receiver Derrick Mason and safety Ed Reed, three of the players fined last week for unsportsmanlike behavior, were named captains.
But their performance extended beyond symbolism. The Ravens committed 11 penalties for 97 yards - one of which called back Mark Clayton's touchdown off a direct snap - though only one was a personal foul.
"We've been talking a lot about what we're going to do," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "We were talking about staying focused and even-keeled. What we wanted to do is back up our talk. We can play a focused game without losing the passion and intensity."
Their only regret was failing to record the shutout. If not for Phil Dawson's 24-yard field goal in the third quarter, the Ravens would have had their first shutout since 2003.
"We'll take [a win] any day," Rolle said. "We play them again so maybe we can get [the shutout] then."
The Ravens, who were off to their worst start in franchise history, remain 2 1/2 games behind the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals and one game back of the second-place Pittsburgh Steelers.
Their next game is against the Bears in Chicago, where they will look to end their five-game road losing skid.
"The season is still early," Wright said. "People are writing us off for a loss here and a loss there. That's silly to us. We just have to keep fighting."
A winning formula
The Ravens played their style of football in beating the Browns yesterday, with big plays leading to all 16 points.
Play Qtr. Result
Ray Lewis recovers Dilfer fumble, 1st, Wright TD pass to Heap
Sams returns punt 51 yards, 1st, Stover 39-yard FG
Taylor runs for 52 yards, 1st, Stover 27-yard FG
Suggs forces Dilfer fumble, 2nd, Stover 38-yard FG