In the final frantic two minutes, Ravens players hobbled on and off the field, some occupying roles that they had never before been asked to fill. By necessity, Dean Pees sent in defensive packages that the Ravens hadn't even practiced, all while a once seemingly-comfortable lead and the NFL's longest home winning streak hung in the balance.
The Dallas Cowboys, who had possession pretty much all afternoon, had two chances in the game's final 36 seconds today to either beat the Ravens or at the very least, send the game into overtime.
The first one slipped through Dez Bryant's fingers, the wide receiver failing to hold on to Tony Romo's two-point conversion pass attempt which would have tied the game. The second one, following the Cowboys' recovery an onside kick in Ravens' territory, came off Dan Bailey's right foot and then veered wide left of the upright.
Bailey's miss from 51 yards outs in the waning seconds allowed the Ravens to finally exhale and celebrate a pulsating 31-29 victory in front of an announced 71,384 at M&T Bank Stadium.
"It was crazy to watch it over there, but we did what we needed to. I guess maybe they didn't quite do what they had to do, but it was a crazy finish," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw for 234 yards and one touchdown, a 19-yard strike to Torrey Smith that sent the home team into halftime with a 17-10 lead. "I don't know if we necessarily deserve to win this game, but we'll take it. We'll get the hell out of here really quick and go home and fall asleep and wake up the next morning with a win."
They'll wake up with a 5-1 record for only the second time in franchise history, a two-game lead in the AFC North, and a 14-game home winning streak intact. Their latest victory, however, came at quite a cost, and not just to the psyche of a proud defense that continues to get pushed around at the line of scrimmage and give up yards at a staggering rate.
Lardarius Webb, the Ravens' best cornerback, likely tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee late in the first quarter and is expected to be out the rest of this season. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the team's leading tackler and emotional leader, watched the Cowboys' final two drives on the sideline while getting treatment on his right arm. Lewis wasn't available to reporters after the game, but he's planning to get a magnetic resonance imaging taken on his right triceps with the worst-case scenario being a potentially season-ending tear.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, cornerback Jimmy Smith, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu were also on and off the field in the second half with various injuries. That forced normal special team players like cornerback Chykie Brown and middle linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo into regular duty during the Cowboys' final two drives.
"Our guys stepped up in the face of some real adversity," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "We had some injuries, especially on the defensive side. We were in a physical fist fight from beginning to end. They threw a lot of haymakers at us, and our guys stepped up at the end and found a way to win."
They did despite nearly squandering leads of 24-13, thanks to Jacoby Jones' electric 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown early in the third quarter, and 31-23 following Ray Rice's second 1-yard touchdown run of the game with 4:41 to play.
They did despite losing the time of possession battle by an astonishing 40:03 to 19:57 margin, being out-gained 481 to 316 and giving up 227 yards on the ground -- a franchise record -- to a team that was down to their third and fourth running backs by game's end. The Ravens have now surrendered back-to-back 200-yard games on the ground for the first time in franchise history, and given up 441 rushing yards during that span.
However, their blow was cushioned by the end result. Cowboys general manager and owner Jerry Jones had no such comfort.
"I am sick about losing this game," said Jones, whose team is now 2-3 and in last place in the NFC East. "With the time of possession, it's hard to understand how we didn't win. Everybody is as frustrated as I am."
With the Ravens struggling to put pressure on Tony Romo, applying very little resistance against the Cowboys' rejuvenated running game and with the offense having the ball for just over a minute in the third quarter, it was Jones who may have provided the biggest play of the game.
Returning kicks for the first time this season, Jones caught one 8 yards deep in the end zone and sprinted virtually untouched along the right sideline. The 108-yard return gave the Ravens a 24-13 lead, tied an NFL record and set a franchise one.
"Honestly, in practice, we had one that hit the same way so I already had a vision," Jones said. "So when I caught it, I found Anthony Allen, and he said, 'Follow me.' He was my eyes, he led me to daylight. That thing spread like the Red Sea."
While Jones' return created some separation, it did not put the Cowboys away. Romo (25 of 36 for 261 yards, two touchdowns and one interception) led an 80-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard touchdown catch to Bryant, cutting the Ravens' lead to 24-20. The drive featured runs on nine of 14 plays.
The Cowboys continued to gash the Ravens' run defense on their first possession of the fourth quarter, running on six of eight plays to set up Bailey's 34-yard field goal that cut the Ravens' lead to 24-23.
"I'm the one who's going to give it to you straight. For us, we have to get better," said safety Bernard Pollard. "On the defensive side of the ball, we missed tackles, starting with me. … Our team is very talented, our defense is very talented, but missed assignments and missed tackles are putting us in the position where it's a dogfight every game."
In five of the Ravens' six games, the outcome was still undecided on the final drive. After Rice's 1-yard touchdown run made it an 8-point game, the Cowboys had a 4th-and-10, a 3rd-and-27, and another 4th-and-10 and prolonged the ensuing drive long enough to for Romo to hit Bryant from 4 yards out for a touchdown. When Bryant couldn't hang onto the potential game-tying, two-point conversion attempt with 36 seconds to go, it appeared that the Ravens would hang on.
However, Bailey's onside kick rolled through the hands and legs of Ayanbadejo and was recovered by Andre Holmes. A pass interference call on Brown put the ball down to the Ravens' 34, but Cowboys managed just one more yard before calling on Bailey. His kick looked good for a while before veering wide left.
"The fans certainly got their money's worth today," said Ravens center Matt Birk. "It's never over until it's over. We understand that."