SAN DIEGO — When Ray Rice caught the ball and looked upfield, his challenge — and the Ravens' chances of pulling out a victory over the San Diego Chargers — seemed pretty close to hopeless.
There were defenders rushing toward Rice and about 20 yards that he still needed to cover if he was going to get a first down. Running down the sideline, Rice made two defenders miss and then outran a couple of more as he cut across the field. He contemplated taking it all the way to the opposite sideline before ultimately deciding to keep inching forward.
When his mad dash was finally over and Rice was knocked down at the Chargers' 34-yard line, the Ravens had their first down. And about 45 minutes later, they had a victory that looked improbable for much of the afternoon. Rice's 29-yard catch-and-run on fourth-and-29 set up Justin Tucker's game-tying 38-yard field goal as time expired in regulation.
Tucker then hit from 38 yards with 1:07 remaining in overtime as the Ravens fought back from 10 points down with less than 8 minutes to go to defeat the Chargers, 16-13, in front of 57,822 at Qualcomm Stadium.
"We have a football team that has the biggest hearts that I've ever seen. I don't want to go overboard here but how can you not?," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Have you ever been part of a game like that? Have you ever seen a game like that? I never have."
With the victory, the Ravens improved to 9-2 and took a three-game lead in the AFC North over the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers, who lost earlier in the day to the last-place Cleveland Browns, will be in Baltimore on Sunday and a Ravens' victory would go a long way to sewing up the division.
While several Ravens stopped short of declaring the victory as a potential season-defining moment, all of them agreed that they have never seen anything quite like Rice's play, which came on a dump-off after quarterback Joe Flacco decided against just throwing the ball up for grabs from his own 37 with 1:59 to play in the fourth quarter.
"It was really kind of a Hail Mary situation," Flacco said. "We were running down the field and I was hoping because they were playing so soft, sometimes you can kind of get in behind one of those guys and catch them flat-footed and maybe find a soft spot and rip a ball real quick into somebody. I didn't really see anything like that. I didn't want to just throw a Hail Mary. I wanted to give somebody a chance."
What followed was a play that Rice labeled "Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle." Wide receiver Torrey Smith and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata called it the best play that they've ever seen live.
"I was thinking we needed a miracle," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I was thinking we have Jacoby Jones and he can jump there and catch it or we have Anquan Boldin with the best hands in the world. But then I saw the check-down to Ray Rice and I thought he was going to pitch it or something but he kept it and made an amazing play to get it done for us."
When the Ravens trailed in the fourth quarter, hey hadn't scored a touchdown since at the 9:24 mark of the third quarter of their Week 9 game against the Oakland Raiders.
However, Flacco led his team down the field and then hit tight Dennis Pitta for a 4-yard touchdown with just over four minutes to play. The touchdown ended the offense's touchdown drought at more than eight quarters.
The Ravens forced a three-and-out following the Pitta touchdown and had the ball back with 3:09 to play with a chance to at least tie the game. On fourth-and-29 with 1:27 to play, Flacco dumped the ball off to Rice. The referee initially gave Rice the 30 yards it would have taken to get the first down.
However, the play was reviewed and the ball was moved back a yard, but the measurement confirmed that Rice still got the first down, eventually leading to Tucker's game-tying field goal.
Tucker accounted for some of the most critical points of the game. Shutout for the first half, the Ravens finally got on the board at the 12:03 mark of the third quarter on his 43-yard field goal. The play was set up by a 54-yard pass from Flacco to Torrey Smith on third-and-7. That was the Ravens' longest play from scrimmage of the season and it cut the Chargers' lead to 10-3.
The Ravens got the ball right back and again drove deep into Chargers' territory, relying heavily on Rice. Rookie Bernard Pierce gained 18 yards on third-and-1, and two straight Rice runs set up another third-and-1, this one from the Chargers 14. Flacco tried to sneak it on third down and didn't get it. The Ravens then went for it on fourth down and Pierce was stopped by Corey Liuget, giving the ball back to San Diego.
The Chargers, aided by a questionable personal foul on Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, then got the ball back at 7:39 . They also made it a two-possession game as Nick Novak was good from 30 yards out to make it a 13-3 game.
The Ravens' offense was dreadful in the first half, getting just five first downs and gaining 90 yards of offense on 32 plays.
Flacco was just 8-of-16 for 59 yards at the half and missed several big plays down the field. He overthrew Anquan Boldin who had gotten behind the Chargers' defense in the Ravens' first drive.
On their next drive, the Ravens advanced to the Chargers' 34 after a 12-yard completion to Smith. However, Flacco threw an incomplete pass on first down, Jacoby Jones dropped a pass on second down and then Flacco was sacked on third down.
Overall, the Ravens went three-and-out on three straight possessions. Meanwhile, the Chargers started to seize control of the game earlier in the second quarter.
Two long Rivers completions — a 26-yarder to Danario Alexander and a 16-yarder to Malcom Floyd — followed by a 1-yard run by Jackie Battle on fourth down put the ball deep in Ravens' territory. Rivers then hit Floyd, who badly beat Cary Williams, on a slant for a 21-yard touchdown.
Trailing 7-0, the Ravens gave the ball right back to the Chargers after three Rice runs, and this time, Rivers engineered an 11-play drive that ended with Novak (Maryland) converting from 47 yards out to make it 10-0.