A fear of a letdown spurred a typical smackdown by the Ravens.
All week, the players drilled it into their heads about bringing the same intensity they showed in their last-minute win at Pittsburgh. On a sun-splashed fall day, the Ravens drilled the Broncos early and often, hammering out a 17-0 lead before Denver even crossed midfield.
The Ravens gashed Denver for 233 rushing yards (10th most in team history) and shoved their way into the end zone three times on 1-yard runs. They knocked out the Broncos' kickoff returner with a tag-team hit, forcing a pivotal second-quarter turnover. And the Ravens' secondary didn't beat up the NFL's top-ranked passing attack, but they beat Denver's receivers to the spot on most routes.
In what has become a gruesome tradition, the Ravens ran their record to 5-0 against the Broncos in Baltimore, beating them by double digits each time.
But this manhandling of Denver might say more about the Ravens' future than their history.
"When you have to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers, our ultimate rival, and have to bounce back and play, there's a fear of a letdown," said Rice, who produced the fifth-highest rushing total of his career. "We're growing with experiences that we're facing right now, and it's going to carry us through the rest of the season. I'd like to say we're a team that's destined, and we're going to control our own destiny."
The first-place Ravens moved a half game ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers (who had a bye) and two games in front of the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals (who lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
"It was an important win for us to get where we're going as a football team," Harbaugh said. "This is a game we really had to win at home, against an AFC team."
That sense of urgency was evident in the first 20 1/2 minutes of the game, when the Ravens rolled out to a 17-0 advantage.
Where the touchdowns came from, though, couldn't have been predicted.
Joe Flacco's 1-yard touchdown -- the fourth by rushing in his career and first in 24 games (including playoffs) -- capped a nine-play, 73-yard drive. Rice's 1-yard scoring run up the middle -- his first this season after 78 touches without one, the most in the NFL this season -- ended a five-play, 72-yard drive.
At that point, the Ravens had run 12 plays in the red zone while the Broncos had run 12plays in the entire game. They had out-gained Denver 219-42.
It was domination by the Ravens and a dose of humiliation for the Broncos.
"I don't think we played as tough against a team like this," Denver coach Josh McDaniels said, "and for the first time I thought our mental toughness was questioned."
What could also be questioned was the decision-making of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. The rookie returned a kickoff from 5 yards deep in the end zone and fumbled after a teeth-gnashing collision. The Ravens caused the loose ball when Jason Phillips hit Thomas low and Edgar Jones clocked him high.
The Ravens' third forced turnover of the season led to a 37-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff, pushing the lead to 17-0 midway through the second quarter.
"I just took my shot," Jones said. "It was one of those hits that you don't get a lot. I will remember that one."
The only plays that the Ravens defense would want to forget are the two long touchdown passes allowed in the final minute of the first and second halves.
Take away Brandon Lloyd's touchdown catches of 42 and 44 yards and the Ravens held the Broncos to 228 passing yards. The secondary left with a sense of vindication in a battle between the top-ranked pass defense against the top-ranked passing attack.
"It wasn't so much that they played bad today," Ravens cornerback Chris Carr said. "I think we did a good job of shutting them down. We worked very hard. We watched a lot of film. They ran a lot of stuff that we were expecting."
The Ravens' offense controlled the game by totaling 415 yards, running the ball 47 times (second most in team history) and holding on to it for 36 minutes, 17 seconds (to the Broncos' 23:43).
The only blemish on an otherwise impeccable game plan occurred on the Ravens' opening drive.
On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Ravens made a curious call, attempting to throw the ball to defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in the corner of the end zone.
Harbaugh called it a "double whammy" because the Ravens didn't score and Ngata got banged up on the play (he did return to play on defense).
"People can say, 'Why is he out there on offense?' Because you're trying to win those plays," Harbaugh said. "You try to put your guys in position, within reason, to do that."
The Ravens went back to a hard-nosed attack for the rest of the game. After that fourth-down mishap, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called running plays on their next seven snaps inside the 10-yard line.
Rice's 1-yard touchdown run on the second play of the fourth quarter staked the Ravens to a 24-7 lead.
Being able to punch the ball in from 1 yard away is one of the best ways to show an offense's toughness.
"They know we're going to run the ball in there. We know we're running it straight at them," said Flacco, who made more critical plays on his feet (20 yards on five runs) than with his arm (14-for-25 passing for 196 yards) Sunday. "It's just a matter of putting your head down and getting the job accomplished."
The Ravens now head to New England (3-1) after their latest beatdown of the Broncos.The Ravens' average margin of victory over Denver in Baltimore is 17.2 points. The combined score of the meetings the past two seasons has been 61-24.
"Sure, they're one of the most physical teams in the league," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "But sometimes their toughness overshadows the talent that they have. They aren't just tough; they're a good team."
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