Although the cast of characters changes, the Ravens' improbable script for a Super Bowl sequel continues.
Winning in the fourth quarter for the fifth time in six weeks, the banged-up defending champions relied on two season-long backups to overcome four turnovers and four second-half lead changes, taking the final bow again in a wild, 39-27 triumph over the Indianapolis Colts yesterday.Rod Woodson delivered the clinching blow in style with 1:34 left in the game, returning an interception 47 yards untouched for a touchdown for an NFL-record 10th time. But two lesser-known Ravens -- running back Moe Williams and defensive end Adalius Thomas -- set the stage for Woodson's history-making dramatics at PSINet Stadium.
As the third running back to start for the Ravens this season, Williams jump-started the offense by producing 111 yards rushing -- a team season high -- and paving the way on its final two scoring drives with two explosive runs. In the second start of his career, Thomas forced two fumbles in the first half and headed the final defensive stands with 1.5 sacks and a pass deflection in the fourth quarter.
Nail-biters have become a recurring theme for a Ravens team that has had to sweat out a missed field goal, a goal-line stop and a 74-yard, game-winning drive, each in the final minute of a November victory. Yesterday, the Ravens never blinked in scoring the game's final 13 points to survive the third interception return for a touchdown off Elvis Grbac and two costly fumbles lost in the Colts' end zone.
"We've been there, done that," Thomas said. "Whatever reason it is, we find a way to get it done. I don't know if there's anything else we can go through. We have a lot of character, and it shows up in the fourth quarter. Emotionally, we just pin our ears back every week."
The Ravens (8-4), whose past five wins have come by a total of 25 points, have reached their long-awaited bye week before taking a crack at the AFC Central lead of the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-2) on Dec. 16.
"I don't care how weird it is as long as we win," Ravens right tackle Kipp Vickers said.
That weirdness reached its peak midway in the third quarter, when the Ravens lost their 19-10 lead as easily as they lost the ball.
A fumble by Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe at the Ravens' 16 was converted into Mike Vanderjagt's 25-yard field goal for Indianapolis (4-7), loser of four straight.
On the ensuing kickoff, Jermaine Lewis appeared to have broken free for a touchdown, only to have the ball punched out from behind by Clifton Crosby at the Colts' 30. The Ravens' third fumble of the game jetted into the end zone, and Indianapolis recovered for a touchback.
Four plays later, Manning hit Marcus Pollard for a 40-yard touchdown to give Indianapolis its first lead at 20-19 with 3:54 remaining in the third quarter.
"I was running, and the next thing I saw was the ball flying into the end zone," Lewis said. "I don't know how he got it from the back, but he got it clean."
The Ravens answered back from an unlikely source. Williams, who had 23 yards on his first 16 carries, dashed 55 yards to the Indianapolis 9, busting through the interior of the line. On the next play, the Ravens regained the lead at 26-20 on Obafemi Ayanbadejo's dive at the pylon with 2:14 left.
Only 68 seconds later, Colts receiver Marvin Harrison took advantage of cornerback Chris McAlister's falling down and caught a 57-yard touchdown pass from Manning as Indianapolis went back ahead.
The Ravens again immediately bounced back, as Williams ripped through the middle and ran 22 yards to the Colts' 26. After Grbac floated an 18-yard pass to Ayanbadejo, he found a wide-open Qadry Ismail on a slant for a 5-yard score. Ismail's team-leading sixth touchdown of the season put the Ravens ahead to stay at 32-27 just 1:31 into the fourth quarter.
"We made the big plays when we had to," Grbac said. "It's a good sign for our offense to know if we need to respond, we can. I think if we get in a bind sometimes, we can look to our offense. The offense really had the mind-set that whatever it took, we were going to score."
After that Ravens go-ahead score, Thomas led the charge for a defense that is missing three starters but still held the high-powered Colts to 44 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens' sixth-round pick of the 2000 draft, Thomas had two tackles, 1.5 sacks and a batted-down pass in the final 12 minutes. He fittingly ended the game with a 27-yard sack of Manning.
"We're only as good as our role players," Thomas said. "When it comes to being a role player, you go out there and get the job done. You've got to take advantage of your opportunities. If you're in a position to make a play, make a play. That's what it boils down to."
In the midst of Thomas' barrage, Woodson sealed the victory and bailed out a struggling Ravens secondary. Tipped off when Harrison lined up in the slot, Woodson made his third interception of the season and scored the first points of the season for the Ravens' defense.
"He threw it right to me," Woodson said of the fourth turnover -- a season high -- forced by the Ravens. "Luckily, nobody was on the outside, and I could run to the end zone."
Whether it's luck or resiliency, the Ravens say their run of close calls could ultimately lead to a fortuitous yet familiar ending.
"It's crazy out there," Grbac said. "Our games are just nail-biters, and they come down to whoever has the ball at the last second to win it. It shows the character of this team. We do make mistakes, but we keep fighting and we keep coming back. That's a good sign."