For a Ravens defense that outsiders have recently questioned as to whether it was up to Baltimore's classic standard, Sunday's 17-10 defeat of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers provided a strong rebuttal.
The Ravens (8-3) held up-and-coming quarterback Josh Freeman to 162 yards passing. They kept the NFL's 12th-ranked rushing offense to just 101 yards.
Baltimore came into the flexed Sunday-evening game at M&T Bank Stadium with the eighth-best defense, and the unit was as dominating as the Ravens' defenses of old in dismantling the league's youngest team.
"We knew they were a very young ball club," said linebacker Ray Lewis!(/team/roster/ray-lewis/1c6d5ed3-fe49-4a89-a6b5-9e358e906ae7/ "Ray Lewis"), who led the team with 12 tackles. "We knew they were going to come out and fight. I think overall, defensively, we kept the ball in front of us. We shut down their run game.
"We played a good, team game today."
Going to a hurry-up offense late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs (7-4) notched their only touchdown to tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr., but it wasn't enough for the upset. Before that, Tampa Bay's initial points came on a field goal in the second quarter after Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco!(/team/roster/joe-flacco/3e20766f-6520-4ca1-9901-44389aaea8b8/ "Joe Flacco") threw into coverage at wideout **T.J .Houshmandzadeh**.
After a tied score at 3-3, the game wasn't close, as Flacco hung two touchdowns on the board in the final minutes of the first half to jump out to the best start ever under Head Coach **John Harbaugh**.
"I felt like we were in control," Flacco said. "We were never really threatened until the end of the game there. That's the way it is. You never know when you're going to have to go out there and put together a drive."
Putting aside a pedestrian first quarter in which the Ravens mustered only two first downs, Flacco responded by hitting tight end **Todd Heap** in-stride for a 65-yard touchdown four plays after Barth's boot with three minutes, four seconds left in the second period.
Heap, who beat linebacker Barrett Ruud along the seam, caught the ball at midfield and outran every defender en route to the longest catch of his stellar career.
"You're never expecting to be that wide open, but Joe saw the same thing I did," Heap said. "We've run that play a few times, and with the play action, the safety kind of bit up, the linebackers, everybody was flat-footed. I think [Flacco's] eyes got as wide as mine did.
"We needed the touchdown at that point."
The pass also made Flacco, who completed 25 of 35 attempts for 289 yards, the Ravens' franchise leader in touchdown throws, surpassing Vinny Testaverde (51 touchdown passes in two seasons).
Flacco also scored on a 10-yard dart to wideout **Derrick Mason** just before halftime to make it 17-3 heading into the break.
Mason led the Ravens with eight catches for 87 yards, which put to bed any concerns about Flacco feeling remnants of last week's altercation on the sideline.
"You read the defense and you go from there," said Mason. "We've got so many guys that are able to catch the ball that defenses just have to try to pick and choose what they're going to stop.
"And they were playing me one-on-one or either off-coverage a lot, so Joe looked my way today."
The real star for the Ravens was their defense, however.
A big concern for the Ravens was Tampa's ground game with 245-pound battering ram LaGarrett Blount leading all rookies with 63.0 yards per game, but he gained only 55 yards on 13 carries. Sixteen of those yards came on a third-quarter run.
Freeman, whose playmaking ability and large frame draw comparisons to Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, was under constant duress, even though the Ravens did not register any sacks.
And, aside from the no-huddle drive to end the game on which Freeman was 7-of-10 for 60 yards, the second-year signal-caller seemed uncomfortable all day.
The vintage atmosphere of Baltimore's win was furthered by the Ravens' closer, running back Ray Rice!(/team/roster/ray-rice/9d941a20-0c76-412d-85fd-165a029d59e6/ "Ray Rice"), who churned out three first downs to burn the clock down to 0:00 on Baltimore's final march.
"I just wanted to make a play for my team," said Rice, who averaged 4.3 yards a carry (20 attempts for 85 yards). "I wanted to put us in a position where the defense didn't have to go back out there. [The Ravens' defense] fought all day. I just wanted to give us a chance for us to finish it.
"I think we earned their trust a little bit today. We just want to build together as a team."
Now, the Ravens prepare for a battle for the AFC North crown against the Steelers next Sunday.
They could be undermanned with fullback **Le’Ron McClain** (ankle), left tackle Michael Oher!(/team/roster/michael-oher/216c0a9c-c171-4ecf-8ab5-94e4c8f40736/ "Michael Oher") (knee) and safety **Dawan Landry** (concussion) all leaving the game with injuries.
But after beating one of the NFC's top contenders, the Ravens know they must quickly turn the page.
"This is a big victory," said Harbaugh. "This is a 7-3 NFC team coming in here that's been on a roll. You saw how well they played. That's the kind of football team they are, so I don't think you ever want to diminish this victory.
"It's one we really needed to get to where we're going, but it's a game that's bridged us into December. It gives us an opportunity to accomplish some things. Now, we're playing the biggest game of the year."