Game 3: Flacco guides Ravens to 24-17 win over Browns

If nothing else, the Ravens' jubilant homecoming proved Joe Flacco doesn't fold under pressure.

Not after a week of criticism. Not after losing his star running back. Not in the face of an all-out blitz in the fourth quarter.

Throwing three touchdowns to wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the strong-willed quarterback lifted the Ravens to a 24-17 comeback victory over the winless Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium and lived up to the sellout crowd's high expectations of him.

Last week, Flacco shouldered most of the blame after throwing a career-worst four interceptions in a loss at Cincinnati. At Sunday's home opener, he deserved most of the praise after bringing the Ravens back and bailing out a surprisingly poor run defense.

So what does this rebound performance say about Flacco?

"It says he's the kind of guy you want playing quarterback for you," coach John Harbaugh said. "I don't think there's a guy in the building that doubted that for one second."

For those wanting to bench Flacco, he delivered a decisive counter-argument against the Browns (0-3).

He made quick decisions. He stepped into his throws. The result: 22 of 31 passing (71percent) for 262 yards and a 128.7 quarterback rating (the second best of his career).

It allowed the Ravens (2-1) to keep pace with the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0), who lead the AFC North by one game.

"Obviously, you're happier this week than you were last week," Flacco said in his usual understated fashion.

Last week, Flacco had two opportunities to deliver a fourth-quarter comeback. Both led to punch-in-the-gut interceptions.

This time, when the Ravens fell behind 17-14 in the fourth, Flacco responded immediately by completing six straight passes for 78 yards in a drive filled with its share of hurdles.

The Ravens took a serious blow when running back Ray Rice left the game with a sprained knee after a 4-yard catch. But one play later, Flacco stared down an all-out blitz on third-and-5 -- seven Browns crashing upon him -- and hit Boldin for a 27-yard touchdown.

Their third scoring connection of the game put the Ravens up for good at 21-17 with 9:13 left and spurred a rare display of emotion from Flacco, who ran down to the end zone to celebrate with Boldin.

"That was a big-time play," Harbaugh said. "When you talk about a guy making progress in his third year, I think it showed up right there."

Rice's status for Sunday's game at Pittsburgh is unknown. Rice doesn't have ligament damage, according Harbaugh.

"I'll take some tests on Monday," Rice said, "but everything looks positive right now."

The way Flacco responded to adversity drew loud cheers from the crowd -- an announced 71,119 -- but few shocked looks.

He had thrown more than three interceptions in a game twice previously in the regular season, and both times he produced a quarterback rating higher than 120 in the next game. In many ways, this was status quo for the 2008 first-round pick.

"I love what he did today," said Boldin, who finished with eight receptions for 142yards. "He came out and just played football. He made a lot of great throws out there. I think he made quick decisions, and you see the end result."

The decision was made early and often to throw to Boldin and attack Browns cornerback Eric Wright, who was beaten on all three touchdown passes.

On the first one, Boldin slipped past Wright and leapt in the back of the end zone for the 8-yard catch. On the second one, Boldin simply made a move to the inside against Wright, who got spun around because he was guessing a route to the corner of the end zone, for the easy 12-yard grab. On the third one, Boldin had only to run under the high-arcing throw after outrunning Wright for the 27-yard score.

"They kind of worked out the way we drew them up," Flacco said, "and that's why he ended up getting those TD passes."

Asked whether he felt as if he could beat Wright every time, Boldin said, "Our receivers feel like we can beat anybody when it's man coverage."

Disaster nearly struck Flacco on his first pass of the game. Seeing a cornerback blitz, Flacco said, he was trying to throw the ball out of bounds. Instead, it sailed into the hands of rookie safety T.J. Ward, who had no one between him and the end zone.

On a play that would foreshadow Flacco's day, the pass went off Ward's hands and right to wide receiver Derrick Mason.

"The guy did a great … uh, bad job of catching it, I guess," Flacco said with a grin.

After the Browns jumped ahead 3-0, Flacco led the Ravens on consecutive drives of 85 and 93 yards. On those possessions, he was 10 of 12 for 127 yards (he threw for 154 yards for the entire game last week).

"Joe lets things roll off his back and goes to the next play, the next game," tight end Todd Heap said. "He's becoming a leader who we can count on that's not fazed by those little things."

The Ravens needed Flacco to take control because the NFL's second-ranked defense had uncharacteristic lapses.

Browns backup running back Peyton Hillis powered his way to 144 rushing yards on 22 carries. He became only the fourth running back to crack 100 yards against the Ravens in the past 54 games.

Hillis' 1-yard score near the end of the first half marked the first touchdown scored against the Ravens defense this season, ending the streak at nine quarters (149 minutes, 47 seconds). His 48-yard run set up Seneca Wallace's 1-yard touchdown throw, which put Cleveland up 17-14 one play into the fourth quarter.

That lead was short-lived because Flacco guided the Ravens on a game-winning 10-play, 69-yard drive on the next possession.

"You look at last week and we gave up five field goals," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You look at this week, and our offense bails us out. I think that's what builds a team for later in the year."

Flacco improved to 5-0 against the Browns, who were playing without their starting quarterback (Jake Delhomme), starting running back (Jerome Harrison), No. 2 wide receiver (Brian Robiskie), Pro Bowl nose tackle (Shaun Rogers) and sack leader (Marcus Benard) because of injuries.

So, does this impressive outing quiet Flacco's critics?

"It doesn't matter. I don't care," Flacco said. "It was a good performance, and I'm going to come back with another one next week."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com twitter.com/jamisonhensley

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