CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The foundation of a proud defense held true at a time when the Ravens could have crumbled again in the fourth quarter.
Back-to-back touchdowns off interceptions by Ed Reed and Ray Lewis pulled the Ravens to a surprisingly tough 37-13 victory over the stubborn Carolina Panthers.
With the Ravens holding a far-from-comfortable 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, Reed picked off a pass and ran 19 yards before making a long lateral to Dawan Landry, who raced the remaining 23 yards for a touchdown.
Just 11 seconds later, Lewis intercepted on the next play and rambled 24 yards for the game-clinching score at Bank of America Stadium, where the chant of "Let's go Ravens" reverberated from thousands of purple-clad fans.
Two interceptions. Two defensive touchdowns. Too much for journeyman quarterback Brian St. Pierre, who was making his first NFL start after signing with Carolina a little over a week ago.
It could have been another fourth-quarter collapse for the Ravens, who had given up a late game-tying or -winning drive in three of their past four games. Instead, it was like old times, with Reed and Lewis leading the charge toward the playoffs.
"To play like this in the fourth quarter and close the game out was huge," said Reed, who yelled "We let them off the hook" in Atlanta 10 days ago after the Ravens gave up a last-minute game-winning touchdown.
"Coming off the loss in Atlanta, we wanted to build on the season, play better and close out games. We've got to do this as a team from start to finish if we want to be competing in late January."
It didn't look as if the Ravens were in the playoff race, or a race of any kind, when beaten cornerback Josh Wilson (who was left in man-to-man coverage because of a safety blitz) was chasing rookie wide receiver David Gettis on an 88-yard touchdown reception, the first play of the fourth quarter, which cut the Ravens' lead to 20-13.
At that time, Lewis said, players on the defense looked at one another and said: "Let's finish what we started. Never two weeks in a row."
The Ravens' defense forced a three-and-out on the next possession before ending those consecutive drives with interceptions.
It marked only the second time that the Ravens had scored touchdowns off back-to-back interceptions (the first was in 2006 in New Orleans). It represented milestone interceptions for Reed (the 50th in his career) and Lewis (his 30th). More importantly, it provided a much-needed shot of confidence into the defense.
"Today, we really took a step forward," Lewis said.
The Ravens (7-3) remained tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for first place in the AFC North after beating Carolina for the first time in their existence and handing the Panthers (1-9) their fifth straight loss. But the Ravens' best 10-game start in the John Harbaugh era came with a victory that was more sloppy than scintillating.
The Ravens' offense went into a second-half lull (120 yards after halftime) and turned the ball over twice. The one fumble in the red zone came when quarterback Joe Flacco mistakenly handed the ball off to running back Ray Rice instead of making the intended reverse to a wide receiver. "My head got scrambled a bit," Flacco said.
The defense allowed third-string running back Mike Goodson to break loose for a career-best 120 yards rushing and a third-string journeyman quarterback to throw the second longest completion ever against the Ravens (the 88-yard touchdown).
"We've got plenty of things to work on," Harbaugh said. "We can play a lot better, but we're happy with the direction we're headed."
The Ravens jumped on the Panthers early and often. Criticized for their slow starts on the road, the Ravens scored on three of their first four drives to take a commanding 17-3 lead into halftime.
Flacco's first pass of the game was a 56-yard touchdown to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who simply outran two Carolina defenders downfield. It was the Ravens' first first-quarter touchdown on the road since their playoff win in New England 10 months ago.
"Looking back on it, yeah, it was big for us," said Houshmandzadeh, who hadn't scored since his game-winning touchdown at Pittsburgh on Oct. 3. "I'm sure everybody thought it was just going to be one of many. But that wasn't the case."
In the first half (which included a perfect quarterback rating in the first quarter), Flacco completed 16 of 18 passes for 213 yards. In the second half, he was eight of 15 for 88 yards, some of which could be attributed to some dropped passes.
That left an opening for the 11-point-underdog Panthers.
"When you let them have success, they're going to play even harder and harder," said Flacco, who recorded his first 300-yard passing game of the season. "We'll look at it but we felt like we could have played better at points in the game."
The Ravens' defense, which had given up 33 fourth-quarter points in the past four games, actually outscored the NFL's worst-ranked offense in the fourth quarter and put the Panthers away on a signature Reed maneuver with five minutes left in the game.
Running clear across the field behind a wall of blockers after the interception (which the Ravens have continually practiced), Reed pitched the ball about 9 yards to his right to Landry, who was looking to block for Reed instead of looking for the ball.
The fact that Reed lateraled the ball wasn't surprising. The distance of it was. Asked whether it was the longest lateral of his career, Reed joked that it was the longest in NFL history except for the Music City Miracle between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills in 2000. The risky flip led to the first touchdown of the season for the Ravens' defense.
"It was a spontaneous thing seeing Dawan," Reed said. "Me and him are a great tandem and are on the same page. We want to take advantage of scoring smartly as much as we can."
Was Harbaugh holding his breath when Reed decided to pitch the ball? No.
"I wanted to score right there," Harbaugh said. "I think we've got to put it in a guy's hands to make good decisions and you try to coach that as best you can. But obviously, that was a good decision."
Harbaugh drew an ovation in the locker room when he unexpectedly announced that he will give the players their first Monday off. Another reward for the Ravens is playing four of their final six games at home. Sunday, the Ravens play the resurgent Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3). Still, some players would contend that the announced 73,021 was a home crowd in Carolina, where it is believed the Ravens had their largest fan following for aregular-season away game.
"To walk out there was like a home game," Lewis said. "To look in the stands and see all those purple jerseys. It was the greatest respect you can ever ask for: For people to pile in and say, 'We will follow you anywhere because we believe in you.'"
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