MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The obvious decision was to punt the ball. The Ravens had already failed twice Sunday when needing just 1 yard to prolong a drive and short-yardage situations have troubled them all year.
It was still early in the third quarter and the Ravens' deficit was just three. If they didn't get the first down on fourth-and-1, they would have given up the ball at their own 34, setting up the Miami Dolphins nicely to increase their lead.
Several Ravens expected to see punter Sam Koch trotting out onto the field, but when wide receiver Steve Smith spotted coach John Harbaugh on the sideline, he knew what was coming next.
"He kind of had that go-for-it look," Smith said.
Quarterback Joe Flacco picked up the first down with a quarterback sneak, and seven plays later he hit wide receiver Kamar Aiken for the go-ahead 13-yard touchdown pass. When the Ravens' 28-13 win over the Dolphins in front of an announced 70,244 at Sun Life Stadium was finally complete, players pointed to Harbaugh's decision as the impetus for a victory that they badly needed.
"Right now, we are all in," said running back Justin Forsett, whose 2-yard touchdown run with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter extended the Ravens' lead to eight points. "It's a playoff atmosphere for us this month. Sometimes, it's going to take those gutsy calls and we have to execute."
By outscoring the Dolphins 28-3 over the final two-plus quarters, the Ravens overcame a brutal start, myriad injuries and another week of distractions. Their fourth win in seven road games raised their overall record to 8-5, and puts them just a halfa game behind the Cincinnati Bengals, losers Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, for first place in the AFC North.
They also gained the upper hand on the Dolphins (7-6) in the race for one of two wild-card spots. And they did it despite trailing 10-0 late in the second quarter, despite being down to two healthy corners after injuries to Anthony Levine (concussion) and Danny Gorrer (knee), despite wide receiver Torrey Smith's being little more than a decoy with a knee injury and despite playing the first of their final four games without suspended defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
Without Ngata, the Ravens defense held the Dolphins to 249 total yards and sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill six times. Elvis Dumervil had 3.5 sacks and now has 16 on the season, surpassing Peter Boulware's single-season franchise record of 15 set in 2001.
"We stuck together, we didn't panic, we did stay with our game plan — all three phases," Harbaugh said. "We overcame some things, some penalties and things like that, that hurt us."
When the game was over, Harbaugh walked behind the Ravens' bench and greeted dozens of purple-clad fans. Publicly, Harbaugh didn't build up the magnitude of the game and he certainly didn't address what a loss would mean to the team's postseason hopes. But he and the Ravens obviously knew.
There were so many key moments for the Ravens that they may ultimately look back on this game if they wind up making the postseason. Trailing by 10 and in the shadows of their own goal posts late in the second quarter, Flacco engineered one of the biggest drives of the season. He moved the Ravens 97 yards on 12 plays in just over three minutes, hitting Steve Smith for a 1-yard touchdown pass. Instead of going into the locker room trailing 10-0, the Ravens went in facing just a three-point deficit and carrying the momentum.
"Just keeping them on the field for that long drive helped us for that next [drive] and I think it really helped us out late in the game, too," said Flacco, who was 25 of 33 for 269 yards, two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown.
His 15-yard scramble started the team's late first-half scoring drive and his 1-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter made it 28-13 and all but put the game away.
The Ravens' defense heard all week about its shortcomings in blowing a late 10-point lead against the San Diego Chargers at home. They allowed points on the first two Dolphins possessions before holding them scoreless on six of their final seven drives.
But their most clutch moment actually came on the Dolphins' lone second-half scoring drive. Miami had a first-and-goal from the Ravens' 4 early in the fourth quarter, but a tackle-for-loss by Daryl Smith, a penalty on the Dolphins, an incompletion by Tannehill and a sack by Ravens' weak-side linebacker C.J. Mosley forced Miami to settle for a 34-yard field goal by Caleb Sturgis. That made the score 14-13, but the Ravens scored touchdowns on their next two drives.
On the next drive, Forsett's rushing score came after what was initially ruled a fumble by Flacco was overturned and judged an incompletion.
"It all came together," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "I'm just proud of the defense and how they answered."
Of course, it is fair to wonder how the game would have been different if Harbaugh had decided to punt the ball early in the third quarter rather than going for it. The coach has gotten some criticism this season after he eschewed field goals for touchdowns and then watched his offense get stuffed.
His response has always been that he's going to be aggressive and keep going for it until his offense gives him reasons not to. At that point of the game, there were plenty of reasons not to, including Forsett's and Lorenzo Taliaferro's getting stuffed on third-and-1 opportunities in the first quarter. But after a measurement confirmed that the Ravens were indeed one yard short, Flacco jogged out to the huddle.
"We had decided if we got close there, we were going to go for it," Harbaugh said. "So pretty much the whole series, we had decided we were going to do that."
Flacco got the first down relatively easily, burrowing forward behind center Jeremy Zuttah for 2 yards.
"That decision right there depends on the guys, and the guys up front did a great job," Harbaugh said. "When we've got an offensive line that we've got, you got a chance to do something like that, and that was big. In your own territory, it's hard to make that call, but not with our offensive line."
When the Ravens won the Super Bowl two years ago, Ray Rice's run-and-catch on 4th-and-29 against the Chargers served as one of the defining moments of the regular-season. As a tired but satisfied group of Ravens walked out of the locker room Sunday, they could only hope that 4th-and-1 against the Dolphins is a similar springboard.
"We know what our expectations are on this team," said rush linebacker Terrell Suggs. "We're going to have each other's back whether we got the first down or not. We knew we were going to have to hold them to three or get them on three and out had we not gotten but we were very confident that they were going to get it."