Browns defensive back T.J. Ward breaks up a pass intended for… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
When he finally retreated to his locker at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday after running roughshod over the Cleveland Browns, Anquan Boldin's 6-year-old son, A.J., was draped tightly around his neck.
It was the only time all day anyone even remotely covered the Ravens' playmaking receiver.
Boldin left cornerback Eric Wright -- and the rest of the Cleveland secondary -- in his wake en route to a 24-17 win that restored order to the Ravens' universe and respect to their pass offense.
In a game of pitch and catch with Joe Flacco, Boldin pulled down eight passes worth 142 yards and three touchdowns. Along the way, he snagged the 600th catch of his eight-year career, an 8-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
But the biggest catch of the day -- and his three-game Ravens' career -- came with nine minutes left in the game with the Ravens down 17-14 and facing third-and-5 at the Cleveland 27.
Against a maximum blitz, Flacco got enough time to throw a soft-touch pass over Wright and into Boldin's hands in the end zone for what was the game-winning touchdown.
Boldin had been the primary target on each of his first two touchdowns, and when Cleveland showed blitz on third down, Flacco knew where to look again.
"It was just depending on what coverage they played," Flacco said. "I felt like he was going to be my fastest guy and I had to buy a little bit of time and get him the ball because it was one-on-one, and there were no deep safeties, no corners sitting over there. I knew I could loft the ball up there."
Boldin could have had a fourth touchdown had rookie safety T.J. Ward not climbed on his back in the end zone to break up a pass with 5:45 to go. Even though replays showed Ward clearly made early contact, no penalty was called.
The 5-foot-10 Wright, Cleveland's best cover cornerback, gave up 3 inches and all three touchdowns to Boldin. It was the biggest mismatch of the day, and the Browns were hard-pressed to explain it.
"We tried multiple things," Browns coach Eric Mangini said. "We tried man, we tried zone, we tried doubling. None really worked that well."
Boldin's big day was the first tangible return on the Ravens' upgrade at receiver. Facing Boldin, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tight end Todd Heap, defenses will be challenged to account for all potential targets.
"Joe to Anquan was a big difference," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "But understand why those things get set up. It's because [the defense isn't] covering one guy. You've got [defenders] that rotate to [Mason] or they're dropping down to make sure they cover T.J. all the time in the three-wide set. They have to cover Todd, so that's a team effort right there. So other guys are going to have big days, for sure."
That bounty at receiver sends the Ravens to Pittsburgh next week with a chance to tie for the AFC North lead. Boldin pointed to the play-calling of Cam Cameron for the offensive breakout.
"It was honestly a good game plan by our offensive coordinator," Boldin said. "I think Coach Cameron did a great job of watching film and just countering what he felt [Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan] was going to do. It felt like he was a step ahead on every call. That's why you saw, not only me, but other guys running wide open."
In a distinguished career, Boldin was the fastest to reach 400, 500 and now 600 catches. Sunday, he got No. 600 in 98 games, four quicker than previous record holder Marvin Harrison. But he cavalierly tossed the ball from one touchdown catch -- a 12-yarder in the second quarter -- into the stands.
Later, he said he doesn't keep memorabilia.
"I always give the fans the ball whenever I score a touchdown because I feel like fans come to the games for a reason -- to enjoy themselves," he said. "I think giving them something like a football is something they'll remember for the rest of their lives. ÃÆÃâÃâÃâ¦ I don't have any problem giving them away."
Someone with the team, however, retrieved the 600th catch for Boldin. His son, A.J., was hopeful of getting that one.
"He won't forget," Boldin said, as his son held on tightly.