Game 7: Offense answers the call

NEW ORLEANS — In a week when Brian Billick compared the New Orleans Saints to Mother Teresa, the Ravens coach turned out to be the miracle worker.

With Billick bringing new life to a moribund offense along with an air of unpredictability in his first game as the team's play-caller, the Ravens made their most authoritative statement of the season in hammering the Saints, 35-22, yesterday at a rambunctious Superdome.

At one moment, the Ravens were a power running team, handing the ball off to an inspired Jamal Lewis with some old I-formation plays. On the next play, they were spreading the field with four receivers and no running backs, allowing quarterback Steve McNair to pick apart the Saints in the red zone.

It seems like Billick has made all the right moves since firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel two weeks ago, implementing a game plan that kept New Orleans in the dark along with his players.

"I felt like if I don't know what's going on, I know they can't," Lewis said with a smile.

Although the Ravens' defense played a major role in stopping the two-game losing streak -- rookies Ronnie Prude and Dawan Landry each ran back interceptions 12 yards for touchdowns -- it was the offense that became the catalyst to defeat the NFC South-co-leading Saints (5-2).

After scoring 10 touchdowns in its first six games, the Ravens' offense reached the end zone yesterday on three of its first five drives, marching 43, 80 and 71 yards.

McNair finished with a season-high passer rating (121.5), and Lewis gained a season-best 109 yards on 31 tough carries. The Ravens set season highs in points, first downs (21) and third-down conversions (eight). Their 293 yards of total offense was the second most this season.

"[Billick] put us in position to be successful today," said McNair, who showed no effects of a concussion he suffered two weeks ago. "When you put those wrinkles in and keep them off-balance, half of the battle is already won. Now all you have to do is execute."

The players said the much-needed spark came immediately after Billick assumed control of an offense that has sputtered for 7 1/2 years under two offensive coordinators.

"By him coming in with confidence since the first day he took over made everyone more alert," Lewis said. "I think we kind of fed off him more than anything else."

The upset victory not only marked the Saints' first loss in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, but it also represented the first time the Ravens have scored 30 points on the road since 2003 (a span of 19 road games).

More importantly, the Ravens (5-2) regained sole possession of first place in the AFC North, taking a one-game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals, who lost to the Atlanta Falcons yesterday.

"I think everyone knew how important this game was," Lewis said. "It is a big momentum builder."

The only time the Ravens lost momentum in the first half came when New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees hit Joe Horn for a 32-yard touchdown pass, cutting the Ravens' lead to 21-7 with 4:08 left in the second quarter.

The Ravens immediately took back control of the game, but this time it was their new offense -- not their trusty defense -- that delivered the decisive and improbable blow.

On third-and-goal at the Saints' 6-yard line, McNair tossed a pass that was tipped by Saints cornerback Jason Craft and went through the hands of linebacker Scott Fujita before reaching tight end Todd Heap in the back of the end zone.

Heap's fifth touchdown catch in six games staked the Ravens to a 28-7 halftime lead, and they were truly never threatened again.

"That wasn't how it was drawn up," Heap said.

McNair said he thought he could get the ball to Heap before the defenders turned around. He was wrong.

So even when the Ravens ad-libbed from Billick's game plan, they still found success.

"It was lucky," McNair said. "We didn't practice it going through [two] guys."

Other than that play, the Ravens were crisp and prepared in not only going against the Saints but a deafening crowd of 69,152.

They fooled the New Orleans defense with a designed quarterback draw by McNair to score their first touchdown. They kept the Saints off-balance on a third-and-two call late in the first quarter, when McNair threw a 30-yard pass to Heap off play-action. They even lined Lewis up at fullback to convert a second-and-short near the end of the first half.

Asked if there was any additional pressure for taking over the play-calling, Billick said, "Whether you jump off a 30-story building or a 50-story building, at some point it's just another story."

He then joked, "I particularly like the play calls of the two interceptions for touchdowns."

If there was a bright spot for the defense -- it allowed 400 yards for the second straight game -- it was creating turnovers and shutting down Reggie Bush.

The second pick overall in the draft finished with 21 yards of total offense (16 yards rushing and 5 yards receiving) and two turnovers before the Ravens knocked him out of the game in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury.

In total, the Ravens converted 28 points off five turnovers by New Orleans.

"It's not any magic formula," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It went against everything we've been trying to accomplish."

The next challenge for the Ravens is whether they can create the same magic with their new offense Sunday against division rival Cincinnati.

"Today was a small step," receiver Derrick Mason said. "We want to have an identity of a balanced offense, one that can kill you whether it's by the run or the pass."