A bruising running game sprang up when the temperatures dropped. A terrorizing defense ambushed the reigning Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. And quarterback Joe Flacco unleashed his angry side, hurling expletives at officials.
It took until Week 15 for the Ravens to establish their smash-mouth identity, but they didn't smack just any team in the mouth. Ray Rice ran past -- and through -- the defending Super Bowl champions, producing a career-high 233 total yards and two touchdowns. The Ravens' blitzing defense crashed the pocket around Saints quarterback Drew Brees and slowed a team that had scored 30 points in five straight games.
No one in the Ravens locker room would classify this as "a statement win," but Rice summed up the significance of beating the sizzling Saints (10-4) eloquently.
"To beat them this late in the year when they were peaking, it just says something about our team," said Rice, who totaled 153 rushing yards and 80 receiving yards. "We've been making it pretty interesting, but one thing about our team is we've got a resilient group."
The Ravens (10-4) have the same record as the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4), who lost to the New York Jets, but they're technically behind the Steelers in the AFC North. If the teams end the season tied atop the division, the Steelers would win the AFC North because of a better division record (the Ravens have one more loss in the division after falling at Cincinnati in Week 2).
In order for the Ravens to have a shot at the division title and a top seed in the AFC playoffs, they need the Steelers to lose at least once in the final two weeks (home against Carolina and at Cleveland). The Ravens wrap up the regular season at Cleveland and home against Cincinnati.
"We keep the pressure on Pittsburgh this way," Harbaugh said. "We're still trying to win the division. They have the edge because they beat us, but we're not conceding that just yet."
The Ravens certainly didn't back down at any point against the Saints, not with the way Rice was dominating the game. He broke a 20-yard run on fourth-and-one in the first quarter and responded with a big play every time New Orleans scored in the second half.
When Garrett Hartley's 47-yard field goal cut the Ravens' lead to 21-17 in the third quarter, the Ravens' first play was a swing pass to Rice, who broke six tackles for a 32-yard gain. The Ravens settled for a 33-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff after a wide-open Le'Ron McClain dropped a pass on second-and-goal.
When the Saints tied the score at 24 in the fourth quarter on Lance Moore's stretched-out 15-yard touchdown -- which was upheld after a replay challenge -- the Ravens didn't panic in losing their ninth fourth-quarter lead of the season. Their first play was a 50-yard run by Rice, who ran behind a wall of blockers and wasn't touched until he was tackled deep in New Orleans territory. Roman Harper's late hit on Rice on that play set up another field goal by Cundiff.
"There was some doubt that we weren't going to be able to beat the defending champs because of last week's performance," said Rice, referring to the fact that the Ravens needed overtime to win at Houston after squandering a 21-point lead. "But this is a new week. We scored, they scored. We matched them hand-for-hand. We played chess with them today, and it just so happened we finished the game with a checkmate."
The Ravens' finishing move came from a defense that failed to close in the fourth quarter six days earlier.
With the Ravens ahead 27-24, the defense didn't let New Orleans get within a sniff of the end zone. On fourth down at the Saints' 17-yard line, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata tipped Brees' pass and defensive end Cory Redding pulled it in for the interception with 1:47 remaining.
Cundiff's 27-yard field goal closed out the Ravens' fourth win in five games.
"I think everybody on our defense was thinking that we couldn't let this one get away," Ngata said. "Throughout this year, we have always let teams finish us off. It just felt great that our defense could help out our offense like that."
Rice carried the Ravens' offense on a day when the wind chill dipped to 25 degrees. When the Ravens scored touchdowns on three straight drives in the first half, they ran the ball 16 times and threw six passes.
Rice scored on a 10-yard run and caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Flacco in the back of the end zone. Rice, who had only one 100-yard rushing game this season, finished with his most rushing yards since gaining 154 at Cleveland in November 2009.
"I knew we were going to run the ball today," said Rice, who is going to sign his shoes and give them to his mother for Christmas. "It felt good that we said we were going to do something and then we went out and did it. If I have to be a sparkplug, so be it."
This also wasn't the same Ravens defense that played the safe route by rushing three players and dropping everyone else into coverage. The Ravens blitzed more than they have all season, sending linebackers, cornerback Chris Carr and safety Ed Reed.
The Ravens defense didn't give up anything easily. Two of the Saints' three touchdowns were the result of acrobatic catches (a one-handed grab by tight end Jimmy Graham and an outstretched one by Moore) to reach the end zone.
The Ravens -- who improved their record against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks to 2-12 under Harbaugh -- caught Brees off guard.
"It was a lot different from Monday night when we watched them against the Texans," Brees said. "The defense played a lot less conservatively."
Another unexpected development was the outburst by Flacco on the sideline. Late in the third quarter, Saints defensive end Will Smith landed on Flacco after the play ended and appeared to put his knee into the quarterback's helmet.
TV cameras caught Flacco using some salty language as he complained to the officials.
"I have my things on the sidelines sometimes," Flacco said. "I don't know that they always get caught. But apparently this one did. I wasn't too happy at the time. It happens. I feel like it was a late hit."
The Ravens were the ones who delivered the final blow and find themselves in a strong position to make the playoffs for a third straight season. With two regular-season games remaining, the Ravens carry a two-game lead over the San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars for a wild-card spot as well as a boost of confidence after beating the Saints.
Asked whether this was a signature victory, Harbaugh said: "I don't know. That's a fair thing for you guys to talk about, but for us, it's a win we needed this week. We needed to get 10, and we have 10. Now, we need to get to 11."
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