It was exactly how the Ravens envisioned their offense looking when the season began.
Ray Rice was grinding out yards on the ground. Joe Flacco took a deep shot to rookie Marlon Brown that drew a pass interference penalty and spent the rest of the drive spreading the ball around to Jacoby Jones, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. When the Ravens needed to get the ball in the end zone, Flacco found his two favorite targets — Pitta for the 1-yard touchdown and Torrey Smith for the two-point conversion.
The nine-play, 64-yard, fourth-quarter drive in the Ravens' 29-26 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday set up a finish that coach John Harbaugh described a day later as "epic." But lost in all the craziness — the 36 points scored and the five lead changes in 125 seconds — was the appearance of a balanced and explosive offensive attack the Ravens have lacked for much of the season.
The Ravens had 207 net yards and 12 first downs in the fourth quarter alone against the Vikings, offensive momentum they'll need to carry into Monday night's game against the high-powered Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
"We would like to have 200 yards in a quarter; that's what it's supposed to look like, certainly," Harbaugh joked Monday. "We need to be productive. We've had our ups and downs offensively. We've been trying to put this thing together throughout the course of the season, and we've had some good moments, but we've had a lot of challenging moments, too. So, we're going to continue to try to do that with the pieces that we have."
The late-game offensive surge came after the Ravens were held to just one touchdown over the first 57:55 of the game, as Flacco struggled to adjust to the timing of his wide receivers' routes on a snow-covered and slippery field and made a couple of ill-advised decisions that resulted in interceptions.
When Flacco got in a rhythm and the footing improved, the Ravens moved the ball at will, advancing into Vikings' territory in all four of their fourth-quarter drives. A failure to convert on fourth-and-inches from the Vikings' 21 and a bobble by Jones on a deep ball that fell in the hands of Minnesota's Marcus Sherels prevented the Ravens from scoring on their other fourth-quarter drives.
"There weren't very many mistakes on offense at all," Harbaugh said. "Offensively, I can't think of one missed assignment we had."
The Ravens were playing the Vikings, who came into the game with the 30th-ranked defense in the NFL, and Harbaugh didn't just gloss over the fact that his offense went three-and-out on five of six possessions spanning the second and third quarters.
But for a team that has battled offensive consistency issues all season, any positive signs are going to be taken as encouraging developments. The Ravens rushed for only 97 yards on 27 carries, but Rice looked explosive in the fourth quarter, taking seven carries for 43 yards and helping to wear down the Vikings' front. Harbaugh said he was pleased with how Rice ran "north-and-south" and felt his much-maligned offensive line did a good job of opening holes.
After going 1-for-9 in the previous two games in the red zone, the Ravens came away with touchdowns in all three of their trips inside the 20 as Flacco found mismatches and his receivers made the appropriate reads.
For a team that hasn't gotten consistent production in the passing game out of any receivers beyond Smith, nine Ravens caught passes from Flacco, who was clearly buoyed by the return of Pitta.
"It's very huge," Dickson said of Pitta's return. "We knew the type of plays he could make. … He's going to help us big going into December. He came back at the perfect time."
Pitta, who returned from hip surgery in July, had a shaky start, but he rekindled his chemistry with Flacco as the game went on and finished with six catches for 48 yards and a touchdown. With him working from the slot and Smith and either Jones or Brown on the outside, the Ravens passing game looked far more potent than it's been for much of the season.
"The more guys you put out there that are weapons, it helps everybody," Harbaugh said. "If you look at us offensively, we're not a one-man show. We've got guys at every position that can make plays. … Everybody can be involved in the passing game and we feel like we have good runners that can make some plays [and] that continue to improve. That's good for us. Joe is the kind of guy that will spread it around. Joe is not the kind of guy that's really going to go to one place or look to one spot all the time."
In the fourth quarter Sunday, Flacco was 12-for-18 for 130 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. That included driving the Ravens' 80 yards on five plays in 41 seconds to secure the winning score on a 9-yard pass to Brown in the back of the end zone. It marked the 18th game-winning, fourth-quarter drive of Flacco's career, including the third this season.
"We're a confident football team," Flacco said after Sunday's game. "We've got a lot ahead of us. We're starting to get healthier. We're starting to put it together as a team. We just need to start putting it together for a full 60 minutes and see where it takes us."
Flacco and Harbaugh are hoping that Sunday's fourth quarter is the start of that.
"There are certain things that we are and there are certain things that we're not. Certainly at this point in time, we know what those things are," Harbaugh said. "You can criticize us all you want, you can say that 'they're not this, they're not that,' and you know what, you're probably right. We are what we are and we have to find a way with the guys that we have to be a real potent offense and I believe we can do that. I know we can do that."
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