CINCINNATI - The Ravens kept insisting that Mark Clayton was going to bust out any game now. Derrick Mason, Joe Flacco, John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron made the claim more often as the season wore on. He's close to popping one. We're just a fraction away from clicking big with him.
Yesterday, against the feeble Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, no more close and no more fractions. Clayton was not just the playmaker he was promised to be on draft day in 2005. He was the day's biggest playmaker by far.
On a dull, dreary day against a dull, dreary opponent, Clayton's totals were a beacon: five catches for 164 yards and a touchdown, one completion for 32 yards and another touchdown, and a direct hand in all but three of the increasingly explosive Ravens' first 27 points.
He said his breakout "just happened," and that's how it seemed. Despite the hints from within the team, there was no real warning. Now, the NFL might have a legitimate warning to heed. True, this turned into little more than a controlled scrimmage. But as the level of competition rises down the stretch, the number of weapons the Ravens can unleash is rising with it.
"In a minute, teams are going to have to realize that, 'Wow, this guy on the other side of the ball is making plays,' " Mason said in a giddy visiting locker room after the 34-3 spanking. "They have to figure out how to roll coverage over there to account for that other guy now. And when they do, then you've got Todd [Heap], who will kill you down the middle of the field.
"It's kind of like, pick your poison," he added. "Who do you want to get hurt with, which receiver?"
And from which passer, Mason might have added, because of Clayton's spectacular plays, the touchdown pass to Mason topped them all.
Until last week, Clayton had been just a threat, a potential weapon. He had fulfilled that only occasionally in his four seasons. When he popped free against the Philadelphia Eagles for a 53-yard touchdown, it wasn't clear whether it was a tease or an omen.
First, there was the 45-yard catch on the Ravens' second possession (on which Flacco spotted a safety blitz and got the ball out just in time), setting up a field goal and the game's first points. Then, a 33-yarder in the second quarter in which Clayton outjumped and outmaneuvered Jamar Fletcher and which set up a touchdown pass to Heap.
Then, in the third, two daggers: First, an end-around that fooled cornerback Leon Hall and left Mason alone for Clayton's 32-yard touchdown pass. Then, a 70-yard scoring bomb from Flacco that Clayton pulled in with one hand because Hall was grasping the other when the ball arrived.
The window has been open for Clayton for a while, as teams loaded up on Mason and the receiving corps' health and experience level shrank. But this game illustrated the difference between saying it was just a matter of time and that time actually arriving.
"Oh, it's huge," said Flacco, who might have had his best day of decision-making all season. Defenses "can't double that guy or double this guy. You have to play your coverages pretty straight. You have a chance to look for as many guys as you can, and they're all making big plays. It's great."
Now, among their options, the Ravens have a quarterback who can catch and a wide receiver who can throw.
"We're very versatile," Harbaugh cracked. "We can do it all."
Thanks to Clayton, they can do a lot more than they could a week ago.
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