A cold and rainy afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium turned into a perfect day for the Ravens.
On the legs of Ray Rice, the Ravens ran over the Detroit Lions, 48-3, on Sunday and gained ground in the AFC playoff race.Doing his best Barry Sanders imitation against the lowly Lions - a comparison made by Ray Lewis - Rice busted through arm tackles, stiff-armed defensive backs and stutter-stepped around defenders in the open field, totaling a career-best 219 yards (166 yards rushing, 53 yards receiving) and one touchdown.
The Ravens' versatile running back broke open the game early (his 204 yards from scrimmage by halftime ranks as the fourth-best half in the NFL since 1991) and paved the way for the Ravens to tie the most points scored in a single game in their 14-year existence.
The loyal fans who showed up (the stadium appeared half-empty for a game whose kickoff temperature was 36 degrees) were also rewarded with the Ravens setting records for most offensive yards in a game (548) and most rushing touchdowns scored (five).
"That's a sweet feeling when you know you work all week, watch the film and you know what you're going to get," said Rice, who was pulled from the game just five plays into the second half after suffering a chest injury. "It's your will against their will. That was more pleasing to me, knowing that I started fast and the game ended the way it was supposed to."
The game couldn't have ended more gloriously for the Ravens. As the Ravens' backups were playing the fourth quarter, the scoreboard flashed that the AFC wild-card leaders, the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars, both lost.
The Ravens (7-6) closed to within one game of the Broncos (8-5) for the No. 5 seed and moved into a virtual tie with the Jaguars (7-6) for the final playoff spot in the AFC.
In terms of the first tiebreaker, Jacksonville's AFC record (6-3) is slightly better than the other 7-6 teams': the Ravens (who are 6-4 in the conference), Miami Dolphins (5-4) and New York Jets (5-5).
"The bottom line is we have to win," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Now, we have to win [three] in a row to have a chance to do what we need to do. We have a Chicago Bears team coming here on Sunday. So, that's where our focus goes."
Even against the hapless Lions, the Ravens were able to deliver some answers to some long-standing questions.
Will the Ravens ever get off to a fast start? The Ravens, who had scored 26 first-half points in their past five games, took a 20-3 halftime lead.
Wide receiver Derrick Mason scored on a 62-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter when he stayed on his feet after getting sandwiched by two Lions defenders at midfield. When the tacklers fell, Mason went untouched the rest of the way for his sixth touchdown (the most in his five-year Ravens career).
Four plays after Detroit scored its only points on a 22-yard field goal, Rice bolted through two tackles to score a 59-yard touchdown.
It was the first time in 10 weeks that the Ravens had scored 20 points in the first half. "We made the plays when they were there," Mason said.
Wondering where the Ravens' running game went? The Ravens gained 308 yards on the ground, the second-most in team history.
Along with Rice, Willis McGahee recorded 76 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and Le'Ron McClain added 32 rushing yards and one touchdown.
According to McClain, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron charged up the players when he told them early last week that they were going to run the ball.
"We took pride in it all week," McClain said, "and we showed it on the field."
Instead of attacking the NFL's worst pass defense, the Ravens chose to beat Detroit in the trenches despite having to change their offensive line.
With left tackle Jared Gaither among the three Ravens starters out (safety Ed Reed and wide receiver Mark Clayton were the others), the team had to flip Michael Oher from right tackle to left and insert little-used Oniel Cousins into the starting lineup. Cousins, a third-round pick in 2008, hadn't suited up for a game this season.
"The offensive line was probably the key on offense today," Harbaugh said. "No doubt."
The blocking allowed Rice to produce two 50-plus-yard runs, a 30-yard catch and images of a Hall of Fame running back.
"He reminds me of a lot of guys, but the way he spins out of tackles, the one guy we saw come through here years ago was Barry Sanders," Lewis said. "He springs like a cat, and he has a heart like a lion."
As the offense piled up the yards and the accolades, the defense quietly finished off its third game without allowing a touchdown this season.
Its dominance began in the first quarter, when the Ravens stopped the Lions on three third-and-short situations to open the game. The Ravens cracked down on Detroit's top offensive weapon, wide receiver Calvin Johnson (four catches for 37 yards), and frustrated backup quarterback Daunte Culpepper (135 passing yards and two interceptions).
"From the beginning of the game, I think we dictated what we wanted to give them," Lewis said.
The Ravens' combination of a pounding attack and suffocating defensive performance made it a rude homecoming for Lions coach Jim Schwartz, a Mount St. Joseph graduate who returned to Baltimore for the first time as an NFL head coach.
"I thought that in preparation everyone was ready to play," he said. "I was way off the mark there."
Up 41-3 to start the fourth quarter, Ravens players had time to celebrate but they said they resisted other temptations. Only linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs acknowledged looking at the scoreboard to see whether Denver and Jacksonville had lost.
"If we don't win the next three games, we're still going to be scoreboard-watching," Lewis said. "Bottom line, we just have to take care of our business."