On a day when several AFC wild-card contenders lost, the Ravens found a way to survive.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers playing without two of their top stars - quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu - the Ravens still needed Billy Cundiff's 29-yard game-winning field goal in overtime to escape with a 20-17 win before an announced 71,314 at M&T Bank Stadium.
The game turned on a play by little-used second-round pick Paul Kruger, who intercepted former third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon and returned his first career pick 26 yards to the Steelers' 28-yard line.
Four runs by Ray Rice and a kneel-down by quarterback Joe Flacco moved the Ravens 17 yards closer against the NFL's top-ranked run defense and set up the game-winning kick with 6:42 left in overtime.
The Ravens, who had been 0-3 in games decided by three points or fewer this season, were jubilant. "We didn't come up in the short end tonight," coach John Harbaugh said. "I was proud of them in those other situations when we didn't win. And I'm proud of them in this situation when we did win - maybe just a little bit more, to be honest with you."
The Ravens (6-5) ended a three-game losing streak to the AFC North rival Steelers (6-5). More importantly, they moved to seventh in the six-team AFC playoff picture because four wild-card contenders lost Sunday: Pittsburgh, Miami, Houston and Jacksonville.
If the season ended today, Denver (7-4) and Jacksonville (6-5) would receive the wild-card berths. The Jaguars have the edge over the Ravens because the Ravens' AFC record (6-4) is worse than the Jaguars' (5-2).
The Ravens kept their playoff hopes alive with the help of the unlikeliest of players. In just the fourth game he has been active this season, Kruger dropped back and stepped in front of Santonio Holmes for the Ravens' only forced turnover of the game.
"It was just like I told the team, 'I've always loved that kid,' " said Harbaugh, who had a one-on-one talk with Kruger last week. "We said it all along: He's a player. There's a reason why we drafted him."
One of the most-asked questions from fans has been why the Ravens hadn't played Kruger, especially when Terrell Suggs was injured. Kruger said the lack of playing time has been frustrating, but it made this moment even more satisfying.
"To come away with a win like that and be a part of that victory is huge for me," Kruger said.
The game started perfectly for the Ravens. After the defense forced a three-and-out, the Ravens' offense scored its first first-half touchdown since Oct. 4, ending a drought at six games.
Flacco was 5-for-5 on the opening drive, spreading the ball around to Mark Clayton (two catches for 32 yards) and Kelley Washington (one catch for 15 yards).
Rice broke a 19-yard run to get the Ravens to the Pittsburgh 4-yard line. On third-and-goal, Willis McGahee scored on a 2-yard run as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who came in as a blocking back, took out two Steelers on the play.
That touchdown - the offense's first after 33 touchdown-less drives in the first half - put the Ravens ahead 7-0.
In the second quarter, the Steelers only briefly opened up their offense with Dennis Dixon, who had previously thrown one pass in two seasons as a third-string quarterback. He completed all three passes for 60 yards, hitting Holmes for a 33-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7.
Holmes turned Domonique Foxworth to catch the pass at the Ravens' 13 and then pushed the Ravens cornerback away at the goal line to score a touchdown in his sixth straight game against the Ravens.
The Ravens' offense awakened again in its final drive of the first half. Clayton caught a 54-yard pass from Flacco, pulling the ball in over leaping safety Ryan Clark. Two plays after Flacco's third-longest completion of the season, wide receiver Derrick Mason beat cornerback Ike Taylor in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown reception.
Mason's first career touchdown against the Steelers (he had gone scoreless in his first 20 meetings against them) put the Ravens ahead 14-7 with 1:45 left in the first half. It also marked Flacco's first touchdown pass in four games.
On the first and last series of the first half - the Ravens' two touchdown drives - Flacco was 8-for-8 for 125 yards passing. On the other two possessions, Flacco was 1-for-4 for nine yards.
The Ravens helped the Steelers score first in the second half.
Clayton fumbled on the opening series, and Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson missed a tackle on running back Rashard Mendenhall (which turned a short pass into a 20-yard gain).
Pittsburgh nearly tied the game, but rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace dropped a pass in the end zone after beating Lardarius Webb (who replaced injured Fabian Washington in making his first NFL start).
The Steelers settled for a 44-yard field goal by Jeff Reed to make the score 14-10.
Pittsburgh converted on the Ravens' second turnover of the second half to take their first lead of the game. It took the Steelers only seven plays to capitalize on Flacco's getting stripped by linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
Facing a third-and-5 in the fourth quarter, Dixon dashed to the right side (where the Ravens blitzed heavily) and needed to beat only Trevor Pryce to the edge. He went untouched for his 24-yard touchdown, the fourth-longest run allowed by the Ravens this season, which put Pittsburgh ahead 17-14.
The Ravens came back to tie the score by converting what could have been their last play of the game. On fourth-and-5 from the Ravens' 46-yard line, Flacco hit Rice down the seam. Rice beat linebacker James Farrior to deliver a 44-yard catch and move the Ravens to Pittsburgh 10-yard line.
But the Ravens had to settle for a 24-yard field goal from Cundiff to tie it at 17 with 1:51 left in the game.
The Ravens' final drive of regulation was stalled when Flacco was sacked for a 3-yard loss and the final seconds wound down. Without a timeout to stop the clock, Cundiff rushed out for a 56-yard attempt which fell short as time expired.
But the Ravens came back to win their first overtime game Nov. 20, 2005 - which also came against Pittsburgh.
"Anytime you're going against Pittsburgh, you know it's going to be a tight and physical game," said Flacco, who had blood smeared on his left leg. "We were ready for it the whole time. You got to play 60 minutes, and tonight you had to play a little more than that."
By the numbers 3Turnovers forced by the Ravens, the second-most this season by the team. The Ravens intercepted four passes against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 27.
4 Trips to the red zone by the Ravens, who came away with six points inside the 20-yard line (two field goals, one missed field goal and an interception).
5 Field goals by new Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff. It ties a team record set by Matt Stover four previous times.
6Games without a first-half touchdown by the Ravens. The last one was Derrick Mason's leaping 20-yard touchdown grab in New England.
17Fewest points scored by the Colts since their season opener. The Ravens' defense has allowed just 20 points in its past 11 quarters.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun