For years, middle linebacker Ray Lewis has helped bail the Ravens out of situations just like the one they faced late in Sunday's game. At times, he's done it with his pure ability. Other times, the Ravens have leaned on his will or his words.
But with their 17-point lead trimmed to seven and Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton leading his offense down the field in the game's final minute, the Ravens' longtime defensive stalwart and emotional anchor was crouched on the sideline, wearing a sweat suit with a towel draped around his neck.
The Ravens survived without Lewis, but just barely. The upstart Bengals got all the way to the 7-yard line before the Ravens' defense stiffened and pulled out a pulsating 31-24 victory before an announced 71,320 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Three incompletions by Dalton -- one ending with an intentional grounding call -- and a sack on fourth down by rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee thwarted the Bengals' comeback attempt, and allowed the Ravens (7-3) to pull into a first-place tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North.
"It's always tough playing without your leader, but like I told our guys, 'There are 53 leaders on this team,' and the guys know it,'" said safety Ed Reed, who caught one of three interceptions by Dalton. "Ray wanted to give everything to be out there. We told him just stay focused and do what you need to do to get yourself back. We knew we had to win this game to give him some time to get back, get healthy. Ray had a chance to play today, but the smart thing to do was not to rush it, and we knew that. We held it down for him."
Lewis, the Ravens' leading tackler, didn't practice all week because of a painful toe injury, but the Ravens held out hope that he'd play until the last couple of hours before the game. Ultimately, the call was made that Lewis should sit, ending his streak of 57 consecutive regular-season games started, dating to the final two games of the 2007 season.
Jameel McClain relayed the defensive play calls, and Dannell Ellerbe filled in admirably in Lewis' absence before he left the game with lower-body soreness. Without Lewis, the Ravens' defense allowed two rushing touchdowns by Cedric Benson and a couple of Bengals receivers underneath to run free, but otherwise it held up well, at least until the fourth quarter.
Lewis -- and the rest of the Ravens, for that matter -- now have a little more than three days to recuperate and prepare for the 9-1 San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving night in a game billed as the "Harbaugh Bowl."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh will undoubtedly spend the next three days answering questions about the relationship with his brother, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. As tedious as those questions will likely become, it certainly will beat what could have been the alternative had the Ravens blown a 31-14 lead in the fourth quarter, which would have dropped them into third place in the division behind the Steelers and the Bengals.
"I think at the end, we would have liked to make it a little less exciting if we could have, but give credit to the Bengals," Harbaugh said. They "are a very good football team. It has been a rivalry since 2008. This team is big and physical. The quarterback is playing really well. They have playmakers everywhere on offense. They have one of the top defenses in the [NFL]. Every game we play against these guys is going to be like this, just like the Pittsburgh game. That's the way it's going to go in the AFC North for a long time."
The Ravens survived because running back Ray Rice, who had just five carries in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks a week earlier, rushed 20 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns, and caught five passes for 43yards. They won because quarterback Joe Flacco found wide receiver Anquan Boldin for a 35-yard touchdown in the second quarter and then hit Torrey Smith six times for 165 yards and a touchdown. Smith set a single-game rookie Ravens record for receiving yards.
And they won because their defense forced three turnovers, two of which immediately preceded Ravens touchdowns, and then made enough plays on the Bengals' final drive to keep them out of the end zone.
"I looked at the time on the clock and I said, 'Our defense will get it done,'" Rice said. "That's the faith that I have in the guys."
The Ravens, who led 14-7 at halftime, used an opportunistic defense to take a 31-14 lead at the 14:02 mark of the fourth quarter. Rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith, seeing his most extensive action to date, stepped in front of a pass Dalton intended for Andre Caldwell for his first career interception. He fumbled on the return, but linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo recovered it, and on the next play, Rice scored from 2 yards out to give the Ravens a 24-14 lead late in the third quarter.
On Cincinnati's next possession, Dalton was picked off by Lardarius Webb, who made a nifty diving interception. Flacco wasted no time punishing the Bengals for their carelessness, finding Smith behind the Bengals' secondary and deep in the end zone for a beautiful 38-yard touchdown pass.
"I don't want to hate on everybody, but we moved the ball throwing the ball. We had some big plays throwing the ball today," said Flacco, who finished 17-for-27 for 270 yards, two touchdowns and one interception a week after throwing the ball a career-high 52 times, a statistic that had offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hearing criticism all week.
"I keep saying it and people don't want to listen," Flacco said. "But last week, the game had to be like that. If you run the ball 15 less times and you don't ever get a chance to score, you're going to looking at yourself saying, 'Man, why did we do that?' When you look at it and you run everything in your head, that's what was going to give us the best shot at winning that football game. That's what we're going to do around here, do what gives us the best shot at winning football games."
When Smith scored, the Ravens had a 31-17 lead less than a minute into the fourth quarter. But Dalton took the Bengals 80yards on just five plays, hitting Caldwell, who ran right past Jimmy Smith, on a 49-yard touchdown pass to make it a 10-point game.
After forcing the Ravens into a three-and-out, the Bengals thought that they had made it a three-point game when tight end Jermaine Gresham made a juggling catch in the end zone. However, the touchdown was reviewed and nullified because the referee crew ruled that Gresham had lost control of the ball as he hit the ground.
"I was told because he went to the ground, once he had the ball, that he had to maintain it through the catch," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "But he broke the plane with the ball outside the end zone and then crossed the end zone with the ball and possession, so I would think it would be a touchdown. But obviously [referee Ron Winter] called what he called."
The Bengals were forced to settle for Mike Nugent's 27-yard field goal, which loomed large when Cincinnati got the ball back at its own 15 with 2:27 to go, needing a touchdown to tie the game.
Dalton scrambled for 9 yards and hit Andrew Hawkins for 19 and then Jerome Simpson for eight. He then went deep, completing a 43-yard pass to Simpson to get down to the Ravens' 7 with 1:35 left.
That's as far as the Falcons would get. Dalton threw incomplete to Hawkins on first down and then was whistled for intentional grounding on second down after he threw the ball out of bounds while being dragged down by Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
Now back at the 17-yard line, Dalton threw an incompletion on third down and, with Lewis waving his towel from the sideline, the Bengals' quarterback was sacked by McPhee on fourth down.
"Seven and three, No. 1 in the division, that's huge," said Suggs. "Now, we're the master of our destiny. We can't take any steps back anymore. November and December are crucial for us. If we want a chance to make a run at this thing, we need to take care of business."