Ninety minutes before kickoff Sunday, the Ravens announced the news they had partly expected but hoped would never come. Linebacker C.J. Mosley was out. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce was out. A defense that had been shredded through much of its first loss of the season was missing two of its top players, not to mention the already suspended Jimmy Smith at cornerback.
Not even two minutes after kickoff Sunday, the Ravens were down a touchdown. That, they hadn’t expected. An offense that came alive late in that Week 2 setback against the Cincinnati Bengals had stalled as quickly as it had started, and the team’s normally reliable special teams had been put on a highlight reel.
And yet, as the clock ticked down at M&T Bank Stadium, over three hours after kickoff Sunday, the Ravens were breathing easy and living right. The result they’d expected, and needed, was theirs. A nightmarish beginning was only the prelude to a comfortable end, a 27-14 win over the Denver Broncos (2-1) in their grasp, their sights set on a crucial Week 4 showdown next Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Quarterback Joe Flacco finished 25-for-40 for 277 yards and a touchdown, spreading the wealth to three receivers who finished with at least 50 yards (John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Mark Andrews), and the defense held a potent Denver offense to 293 total yards in less-than-ideal conditions. It was not as comfortable a rain-game win as the Ravens’ season-opening blowout of the Buffalo Bills, but it was a comforting balm nonetheless
“Talk about a resilient group,” safety Eric Weddle said after the win, which, with the Cincinnati Bengals’ loss, moved the Ravens (2-1) into a tie for first place in the AFC North. “We started bad. Bad, bad, bad. … I am sure [on] the outside looking in, we were like, ‘Uh-oh, the same old Ravens,’ right? It ain’t the same Ravens. I am telling you that right now.”
The Broncos came into Baltimore with two wins but not the profile of a dominant team. Victories over the Seattle Seahawks and then the Oakland Raiders had required fourth-quarter comebacks. So in one sense Sunday, they had the Ravens right where they wanted them: leading 27-14 at the end of the third quarter.
The Ravens refused to play the part of suckers. At the end of Denver’s first fourth-quarter drive, quarterback Case Keenum was chasing an interception he’d just thrown. He was fortunate to have Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor’s 89-yard pick-six called back because of a questionable illegal-blocking penalty on Onwuasor’s lead blocker, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, but that was seemingly the extent of his good fortune all game long.
At the end of Denver’s second fourth-quarter drive, and last overall, Keenum could not complete a gotta-have-it fourth-down throw deep in Ravens territory to tight end Jake Butt. Keenum finished the game with 192 passing yards, 83.5 below his season average, and an interception. If Keenum had expected to leave the game marveling anew at his teammates’ pass rush, he was in for a surprise. The Ravens defense drew holding call after holding call and finished with three sacks and nine quarterback hits overall, led by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (1½ sacks and a tackle for loss).
The Broncos, meanwhile, had just two sacks and three QB hits. All-everything outside linebacker Von Miller had two tackles, held in check by tackles Ronnie Stanley, wearing an elbow brace, and James Hurst, as well as Flacco’s quick trigger.
“You can’t block this defense or Von Miller the standard way,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You have to do it in ways that are unconventional. … Our pass protection really stepped up and did a great job.”
Harbaugh was all smiles afterward on his 56th birthday, but he could not have imagined a worse present than the game’s start. The offense’s first play from scrimmage went for 3 yards. Everything afterward seemed to go in reverse. On Flacco’s first drop-back, Broncos rookie outside linebacker Bradley Chubb shed Stanley like a water-logged sweater for an easy sack.
Two plays later, the Ravens’ Tyus Bowser whiffed on a block of Denver’s Joseph Jones, who had a clear path to Sam Koch. For only the sixth time in his career, the Ravens punter had a punt blocked. The Broncos recovered the ball at the Ravens’ 6-yard line, and running back Royce Freeman (13 carries for 53 yards) all but jogged into the end zone on their first play.
“The game is just like life; you find a point to start at,” said Ravens inside linebacker Kenny Young, who finished with a game-high 10 tackles. “The first quarter was pretty rough. We didn’t start the way we wanted.”
Though the game had all the premature makings of a one-sided laugher, it never got close to that. Helped by a pair of 15-yard penalties on Denver, the Ravens responded with a 48-yard drive to tie the game, running back Alex Collins (18 carries for 68 yards, both season highs) following tight end Maxx Williams into the end zone as comfortably as Freeman had gotten there minutes earlier.
Ten days after Mosley’s bone bruise proved a mortal wound to the Ravens’ chances of a comeback against the Cincinnati Bengals, the defense slowly but surely got used to life without its leader. On the Broncos’ second drive, Suggs lost containment on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders’ 35-yard end-around to the end zone, but the Ravens held Denver scoreless from there.
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“For that stuff to happen so early in the game, I don't think anybody flinched or panicked,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “That's one of our [sayings]: Don't flinch. And nobody flinched.”
Inside linebacker Albert McClellan said he knew the game would be a “heavyweight fight,” but even he probably didn’t expect to see punches thrown. After Justin Tucker’s 52-yard field goal and Buck Allen’s 12-yard receiving score put the Ravens ahead for the first time midway through the second quarter, 17-14, Denver lost more than its lead.
With Tucker looking to extend his streak of consecutive field goals made to 24, Broncos safety Justin Simmons leaped over long snapper Morgan Cox and center Matt Skura before smothering a second kick. NFL rules prohibit “running forward and leaping across the line of scrimmage in an obvious attempt to block a field goal,” but the officials deemed it legal.
The Broncos returned the ensuing fumble for a touchdown, but an illegal block in the back on the runback negated the go-ahead score. With Denver on the march toward the Ravens’ red zone, Suggs, largely missing in action from the first two games, burst loose for a strip sack of Keenum. The Broncos won possession of the ball in the ensuing scramble, but star rookie running back Phillip Lindsay (four carries for 20 yards) was ejected for throwing a punch in the pile.
His target was Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, a mark so unbothered by the incident that he tweeted afterward: “I was trying to figure out who [Lindsay] was punching to get ejected...then I find out it was me.”
It was an apt metaphor for the afternoon. After a first quarter of big blows and counterpunches, the Ravens were still standing, unbowed, their dukes up. It didn’t matter that they reached the end zone just once after halftime, on a 1-yard run by Allen. Denver couldn’t score at all. Weddle was right: The Ravens who finished the game with a hop in their step weren’t the same ones who’d opened the game with a collective pratfall.
“You have 58½ minutes to get back in the game, and it’s 7-0,” Flacco said of the team’s turnaround. “There’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve just got to go out there and continue to execute and just let the game come to you, and that’s what we were able to do.”