By Jamison Hensley
December 26, 2005
If last Monday night's game won Kyle Boller respect, last night's impeccable performance might have won him a starting quarterback job for next season.
With touchdowns coming from his strong right arm at an unstoppable rate, Boller carried the Ravens to a 30-23 victory over the Minnesota Vikings before a scattered crowd at M&T Bank Stadium.
As the defense missed tackles and the running game sputtered, Boller threw three touchdown passes for the second straight game - all on third downs - hitting Todd Heap for 6 yards, Mark Clayton for 47 yards and Derrick Mason for 39 yards.
An embattled three-year starter who has been fighting for his job, Boller completed 24 of 34 passes for 289 yards, knocking the Vikings (8-7) out of the playoffs and sparking an impressive season-ending run for the Ravens (6-9).
It marked the second straight impressive effort in prime time and the Ravens' first winning streak since November 2004.
"Everything is just clicking," Boller said. "It's one of those things where I can't wait to get back out on the field. I kind of feel like I know that somebody is going to be open every time."
Never leading at any point in the first three quarters, Boller seized control of the home finale early in the fourth quarter.
Converting the last of his three third downs of the drive, Boller heaved a 39-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Mason, putting the Ravens up 24-20 just 13 seconds into the final quarter. Mason got separation with a stutter step to the inside, which cornerback Dovonte Edwards bit on, and ran free down the right sideline.
The Ravens then put the finishing touches with a 38-yard field goal by Matt Stover, extending their margin to 27-20 with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter.
Their fourth straight home victory was secured with a fumble recovery by Adalius Thomas 24 seconds later. The turnover was converted into a 19-yard field goal by Stover, giving the Ravens a 30-20 advantage.
The Ravens now have six passing touchdowns in two games after managing 11 in their first 13 games.
"This is what we envisioned happening at the beginning of the season, where we can split me and Mark out and throw the ball around and hit Todd underneath," said Mason, who had nine catches for 103 yards. "We're now showing that big-play ability that everyone looked for. You have to take your hat off to Kyle."
The Ravens could never have envisioned Boller playing this confidently after he nearly played himself out of a job two weeks ago in Denver, where he committed three critical turnovers.
The first sign of hope came when he produced a 136.8 quarterback rating against the Green Bay Packers last Monday night, but the turning point came last night.
The Ravens couldn't rely on their defense, whose sloppy tackling allowed the Vikings to score on half of their 10 drives. They couldn't rely on their running game, which averaged 2.8 yards a carry.
For the first time this season, Boller bailed out the Ravens, providing a drive that answered every Minnesota score.
"You've got to answer, especially against a team that was going to the playoffs," Boller said. "If they get a lead out there too far, it's harder to come back. That's really big to be able for them to score and for us to match throughout the game."
Boller's reply comes at a time when the Ravens are determining whether he should return as the undisputed starter or if they need to seek a proven veteran. His quarterback rating of 113.5 last night was the second-highest of his career.
It seemed like Boller - and his pass protection - played best when the pressure was the greatest.
He was the biggest reason the Ravens converted 10 of 15 third downs, which allowed the Ravens to control the clock for 33 minutes.
"Like the whole team, he responded to the situations," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "When you talk all year long about that's what good teams do - and we have got a ways to go before we can be put in that category - but answering the challenges and the momentum of any given game and that's what we did."
The seesaw scoring began from the game's opening drive.
Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson hit former Ravens receiver Travis Taylor for a 13-yard touchdown pass, and the Ravens responded with a 17-play, 73-yard drive that was capped with a touchdown pass to Heap.
The Ravens' sloppy play on defense resurfaced to cost them before halftime.
Thomas' missed tackle turned a short throw into a 56-yard gain by receiver Troy Williamson, the longest pass play given up by the Ravens this season. Johnson then found Jermaine Wiggins for a 5-yard touchdown pass, putting Minnesota ahead 14-7 with 1:06 remaining in the second quarter.
"We were all just trying to do killer shots," Thomas said of the missed tackles. "I just don't know what it was. I lost my footing a couple of times. I don't know if it was because it rained a little bit and it was a little misty. But we'll go back to the drawing board and straighten it out."
Responding once again, Boller moved the Ravens into field-goal range, going 56 yards in the final 58 seconds of the second quarter. Stover's 37-yard field goal trimmed the deficit to 14-10 heading into halftime.
The Ravens' troubles spilled over into the second half, when Chester Taylor fumbled the opening kickoff at his 26. Minnesota couldn't move the ball and settled for a 36-yard field goal by Paul Edinger, widening the margin to 17-10.
As it had done all game, the Ravens' offense supplied the boost back.
Boller converted a third-and-nine with an 18-yard pass to Taylor, but that was overshadowed by his next third-down pass. With his pass protection picking up the blitz, Boller went over the middle to Clayton, who made an outstretched catch and outran two Vikings defenders.
Clayton's third straight game with a touchdown tied the game for the second time, knotting it at 17.
"It was a heck of a throw and a heck of a catch," Billick said.
On its next possession, Minnesota reclaimed the lead at 20-17 on a 40-yarder by Edinger. The Vikings moved into field-goal range on a 16-yard catch by Travis Taylor, who was able to get to the Ravens' 17 because of a missed tackle by cornerback Samari Rolle.
In the end, the Ravens and Boller always had a timely rebuttal, the key to the Ravens' fourth win in their past six games.
"We continue to fight," said Boller, who has produced consecutive quarterback ratings over 100 for the second time in his career. "There are some teams that come out there and things didn't go their way, they would give up. I'm really proud of our guys to go out there and continue to battle."
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