Ravens wide receiver Mark Clayton beats the Chiefs' Brandon… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
In a regular season that began with unexpected adversity, the Ravens ultimately passed the initial test.
Joe Flacco threw for a career-high 307 yards and three touchdowns in lifting the Ravens to a season-opening 38-24 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs before an announced 71,099 at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
On a sun-splashed afternoon, Flacco and his teammates not only answered the critics, but they also responded to the pressure when it mattered the most. With the game tied at 24 late in the fourth quarter, Flacco stared down an all-out blitz and found wide receiver Mark Clayton for a 31-yard touchdown. It provided the decisive blow and sent a message to the rest of the NFL.
This was supposed to be the same bruising running offense from last year. This was supposed to be the team with questionable big-play receivers.
Yet, at least against last season's fifth-worst pass defense in the league, the Ravens attacked through the air, finishing with a team-record 501 yards of total offense.
"This is a new year, a new offense, a new mentality," Clayton said. "We are kind of remaking ourselves."
A 13-point favorite over a Chiefs team that won just two games last season, the Ravens made several mistakes, especially on special teams, resulting in a game closer than the final score would indicate.
There was a blocked punt that Kansas City returned for a touchdown in the second quarter. There was an interception that Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson ran back 70 yards to set up another touchdown.
That allowed a Chiefs offense, playing without injured starting quarterback Matt Cassel, to take a 14-10 lead in the third quarter and tie the game twice in the fourth.
Unlike previous seasons, it wasn't the Ravens' old formula - playing suffocating defense and running the ball - that carried the team to victory.
After Kansas City went ahead 14-10 (the touchdown was set up by an interception), Flacco passed for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
"It's awesome. It's so much fun," said Flacco, who completed 26 of 43 passes for the game. "As a quarterback, that's what you want to do."
When the Ravens fell behind for the first time (14-10 midway through the third quarter), Flacco answered with a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap on third down.
When the Chiefs tied the game at 17 early in the fourth, Le'Ron McClain's 1-yard touchdown run put the Ravens ahead 24-17. The biggest play on that drive was a 24-yard pass from Flacco to Heap.
And when Kansas City tied the game at 24 later in the fourth, Flacco went deep to Clayton on a high-risk, high-reward play. On third-and 8, the Ravens' pass protection picked up nine defenders crashing the line.
With the Ravens' receivers facing man-to-man coverage, Clayton got behind Kansas City cornerback Brandon Carr on a post pattern to score the winning touchdown with 2:06 left in the game. This was the same wide receiver who didn't play a down in the preseason because of a hamstring injury.
" Cam [Cameron, offensive coordinator] at that moment told us it was coming and it was going to happen," said Clayton, who had five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. "Sure enough, there was the defense. There was the middle wide open. There was the ball, and there was the touchdown."
The Ravens finished off the Chiefs in the final minute of the game, when they chose to run the ball ( Willis McGahee scored on a 1-yard run) instead of trying a short field goal on fourth down.
Still, that was the least of the surprising coaching decisions. Few expected the Ravens to attack the Chiefs largely through the air.
Even though Flacco wasn't sharp at times (he threw high and behind receivers on several occasions), the Ravens remained committed to throwing the ball. Flacco's 43 pass attempts shattered his previous mark (38) and led to the first 300-yard game of his young career.
"I think there's going to be many more of those to come," Heap said. "We just saw the emergence. We just saw the beginning of what he's capable of."
Playing a supporting role for one of the few times this decade, the Ravens' defense put together a dominating performance. The Chiefs didn't get a first down until the two-minute warning of the first half and finished with 188 yards against the Ravens.
The major misstep by the defense came in the fourth quarter, when quarterback Brodie Croyle threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Sean Ryan. That capped an 80-yard drive and tied the game at 24 with 5:21 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Less than four minutes later, Flacco bailed out the defense with a touchdown pass to Clayton, his longest of the game.
"As fast as he grows up is as fast as our team grows up," linebacker Ray Lewis said of Flacco. "Today, it showed."
So, as the Ravens prepare for next week's game at San Diego, does this mark a new era of offense for the Ravens or is this simply a passing phase?