CLEVELAND -- When Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco left the huddle, his mind already was made up. If the Cleveland Browns gave him a certain look, he was throwing the ball to Steve Smith, the veteran receiver who the Ravens signed for these very moments.
It didn't matter that Joe Haden, one of the game's best cornerbacks, was defending Smith. In fact, Flacco didn't even realize until later that Haden was on Smith.
With the Ravens "staring a 1-2 record in the face" as Flacco put it, he and Smith hooked up on a 32-yard reception down the right sideline. Four plays later, Justin Tucker split the uprights with a 32-yard field goal with no time on the clock, sending the Ravens to a 23-21 victory Sunday over the Browns in front of an announced 67,407 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"That's what great players do and that's what [Smith] and [Flacco] did," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "It is a great victory on the road. To win an AFC North game on the road this year is going to be really, really hard to do. Our guys stepped up and did it."
The game featured six lead changes, several injuries to key Ravens players — including a serious one to starting tight end Dennis Pitta — and numerous missed opportunities by both teams. But when a defense that struggled for much of the afternoon twice stopped the Browns and forced punts in the game's final five minutes, the outcome seemed to be a formality, at least to the players on the visiting sideline who have watched Flacco deliver before.
He hit Smith for 5 yards to move the ball into Browns' territory and then found him again for the game's decisive play after the Browns game him a single-high safety look, dropping the ball over Haden and just in front of oncoming safety Donte Whitner.
"When I line up, I think there is no better option than myself. That's how I practice. That's how I play," Smith said. "I told Torrey [Smith] that we were going to make a play. When the defense stopped them and they punted, the coaches come up and said, 'Hey, can you guys go make a play?' That's what we're here for. It's to make a play. John brought me here to make plays. That's what I'm going to do."
After Tucker's field goal, the seventh game-winner of his career, the Ravens rushed on the field to celebrate their 12th victory over the Browns in 13 tries in the Harbaugh and Flacco era. But this one probably came at a huge cost, though the Ravens will find out how huge in the days ahead.
Pitta suffered a significant injury to his right hip – the same one he injured last year – after he stumbled to the ground without being touched in the second quarter. Pitta was taken off the field on a stretcher and transported to a local hospital for further evaluation on his dislocated hip. Team officials feared that he may be lost for the season.
Cornerback Lardarius Webb struggled mightily in his first game action since a back injury in training camp, and there has to be some questions about his role going forward. The Ravens also watched defensive starters Terrell Suggs and Chris Canty leave the game because of injuries and left tackle Eugene Monroe and cornerback Jimmy Smith suffer different aches and pains.
But the Ravens were too busy celebrating a key divisional win — they were just 2-6 on the road last year — to dwell on the negatives.
"For us to come home into what we described as a 'hateful environment,' it's huge," said fullback Kyle Juszczyk, whose 9-yard touchdown reception about midway through the third quarter sent the Ravens into halftime with a 10-7 lead. "For us to have that mental fortitude to win a game like this, this is really big for us, and it's going to pay dividends down the line."
The victory allowed the Ravens, who will host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, to escape a difficult season-opening stretch against all divisional foes with a 2-1 record. And despite the intense scrutiny on the organization over its handling of the Ray Rice suspension, the team hasn't been too affected on the field.
"It's a lot of negatives," said Suggs, the longest-tenured member of the team. "You just have to take it. We're a close team. We're all getting hit. Hey, we're all one Ravens Nation. We're going to continue to band together, and we're going to take it how it comes."
For the first three quarters, Suggs and the rest of the defense looked a step slow and even confused. They barely touched Browns veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer, and they allowed Cleveland receivers to run free throughout the secondary. Hoyer was 19 of 25 for 290 yards and a 127.1 quarterback rating.
When he found Miles Austin alone in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Browns led 21-17. The Browns threatened to break the game open when Flacco (19 of 31, 217 yards) was intercepted by Tashaun Gipson, who brought the ball back to the Ravens' 30.
However, former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff's 50-yard field-goal attempt caromed off the left upright. The Browns would get another chance to add to their lead after they stopped rookie running Lorenzo Taliaferro for no gain on fourth-and-1. Taliaferro rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries filling in for an injured Bernard Pierce.
A 70-yard completion from Hoyer to Taylor Gabriel after a huge breakdown and mental lapse by safety Matt Elam set up a first-and-goal situation. But the Ravens held and then Cundiff's 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Asa Jackson.
"You can't blow opportunities like that," said Browns coach Mike Pettine, who took blame for the loss.
Still trailing 21-17, the Ravens pushed the ball down to the Browns' 2 before settling for Tucker's 21-yard field goal and a one-point deficit.
The two teams then traded punts, and the Ravens stopped the Browns one final time before the visitors got the ball back at midfield with 1:58 to play.
"You do that every day in practice. Go get 20, 25, 20 yards — as much as you can and you give your field goal kicker an opportunity," Flacco said.
Nose tackle Haloti Ngata's immediate thought when the offense got the ball back was "we're going to win." Jackson was just as confident.
"That's Joe Flacco time," Jackson said. "That's what he does. That's what he's done all the time that I've been here. You guys saw it again."