Head Coach John Harbaugh said he expected a close game.
He was exactly right.
Baltimore came into Thursday's game against Cleveland as heavy favorites, but the Browns kept it close all the way until the end of a rainy night. It came down to a Ravens' defensive stop as the final seconds ticked off clock to come away with a 23-16 victory.
"This is the National Football League, huh. Tough," Harbaugh said after the game. "The Cleveland Browns are a very good football team. We said it last week and it was proven here tonight. This is the AFC North. This is the way it goes."
The win improves the Ravens to 3-1 and first place in the division, extending their winning streak over the Browns to nine straight games. The Ravens are now looking forward to a long weekend to recover before their next game in 10 days.
"I'm tired man, I can't wait to have this weekend off," running back Ray Rice said. "This win wasn't one of our prettier ones, but it's a division win and we're alone in the top of our division. It feels good to come away with a win at home."
The victory was far from easy for the Ravens.
Baltimore nearly lost a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead. The Ravens offense failed to run out the clock in the fourth quarter, and the Browns chipped away at the Ravens' two-score lead thanks to a big leg from kicker Phil Dawson. The veteran drilled two 50-plus yard field goals in the fourth quarter, putting Cleveland in position to potentially tie the game on their final possession.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden drove the Browns down to the Ravens 18-yard line with two seconds to play – thanks in part to an unnecessary roughness penalty on outside linebacker Paul Kruger – but the Browns' bid at a comeback fell short when Weeden's pass sailed out of the back of the end zone as time expired.
"If you've been around here as long as I've been around here, you'll understand that in the National Football League every Sunday is going to be like that," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Every time you have an 0-3 team in your division, you know it's going to come down to that type of game."
Quarterback Joe Flacco finished the game 28-of-46 for 356 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the end zone. It was his first red zone interception since Dec. 7, 2009. Flacco also had a 1-yard touchdown run. Running back Ray Rice had 18 carries for 49 yards and eight catches for 47 yards.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin provided a boost on offense, as he played his best game of the season. Boldin finished with nine catches for 131 yards.
"He came out big, huge for us in the second half," Flacco said of Boldin. "He had an awesome night. When we were struggling a little bit, we looked for him and he came up big for us."
The Ravens' high-flying offense has been the story throughout the early part of the 2012 season, but the defense made the play of the game Thursday night. The group held Cleveland to one touchdown, and cornerback Cary Williams killed the Browns' momentum as they were mounting a comeback in the third quarter when he returned an interception for a 63-yard touchdown to give the Ravens a two-score lead.
It was the first interception of Williams' career, and couldn't have come at a better time for him or the team. The touchdown was key in the victory, but might have been even bigger for Williams after he was criticized in the press for his struggles last week against New England.
"I'm proud of that kid," safety Ed Reed said. "He's more deserving of an interception than any other person on this team. I'm just proud of him to go through the ups and downs he's gone through and the criticism he's gone through, and the stuff he takes on a personal level."
Williams' touchdown return came after a back-and-forth first half, where the Ravens moved the ball but struggled to put up points, in part because of costly penalties.
The Ravens got on the board first when Flacco hit wide receiver Torrey Smith for an 18-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The extra point attempt was botched when the snap went through the hands of holder Sam Koch, giving the Ravens a 6-0 lead.
Smith had another strong showing and he finished the day with six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown.
Baltimore added to the lead when Justin Tucker drilled a 45-yard field goal later in the second quarter. Tucker did miss his first NFL kick later in the game, as a 47-yard attempt in the driving rain sailed wide right.
Cleveland punched back late in the second quarter when Richardson scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to cap off a 94-yard drive. The scoring drive came after the Ravens forced punts on the Browns first four possessions of the game.
In the second half, the Ravens wasted little time getting on the board. Flacco led the Ravens on an 89-yard touchdown drive to open the half, with Boldin picking up 60 yards on three catches during the series. Flacco capped the drive off with a 1-yard scramble on a bootleg play, making the score 16-7. After the touchdown, Flacco empathically spiked the ball to the turf.
"I was just excited, and that's what white guys do when they get excited, I guess," Flacco said.
The Browns continued to chip away, as Dawson drilled a 51-yard field goal in the third quarter to cut Baltimore's lead to 16-10. But then Williams came up with the clutch interception late in the third quarter before Dawson's two field goals gave the Browns another shot at a comeback on the final drive.
But the Ravens defense kept Cleveland out of the end zone on the final possession, giving Baltimore the victory and keeping their status among the elite teams in the AFC after the first quarter of the season in the books.
"For us to be sitting at 3-1, with no losses in the AFC, that's huge," Lewis said. "When you look at the people who are going to be fighting at the end of the year, when you get off to a fast start, that's huge."