CLEVELAND – Trapped inside a stadium of thousands, the squirrel headed up field, hesitated, found some daylight and scampered into the end zone as Cleveland fans cheered wildly.
The critter must have been watching Ray Rice.
Baltimore's little man was just as elusive.
Bobbing, weaving and overpowering tacklers, Rice rushed for a career-high 204 yards, picking up 67 on a momentum-swinging play in the third quarter Sunday as the Ravens stayed in lockstep with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North with a 24-10 thrashing of the Browns, who were no match for their division rival.
Rice had a 6-yard TD in the first quarter and his backup, 34-year-old Ricky Williams, added 76 yards and a TD as the Ravens (9-3) toyed with the Browns (4-8). Baltimore racked up 290 rushing yards on a franchise-best 55 attempts and beat Cleveland for the seventh straight time.
Lardarius Webb returned a punt 68 yards for a TD in the fourth as the Ravens embarrassed the Browns in front of an announced crowd of 63,408 — excluding the lost squirrel — that had thinned to a few thousand by game's end.
"We were running downhill all day," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who only completed 10 passes on a windy, rainy day. "That's the way it goes sometimes. We had success running it so we stuck with it."
Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed two field goals in the first half, and Baltimore was leading only 10-3 in the third quarter, when Rice got loose on the longest run of his NFL career.
Taking the handoff from Flacco at his own 27, Rice swept left, found a seam and cut back to the middle of the field. He was able to pull away from a bunch of pursuing Browns near midfield, getting a big block from wide receiver Anquan Boldin before being pushed out of bounds at the Cleveland 5.
Williams then plowed in from the 1 to put the Ravens ahead 17-3.
"It was critical," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Rice's big run. "That was the key to the game, to come back and answer like that. It was a huge answer for us."
The Browns had no answer for Rice, who averaged 7 yards per attempt and nearly broke off several other long runs.
"They just flat out whupped us up front," Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "They embarrassed us. It was a slap in the face. It's the worst performance since I've been here."
Rice's rushing total was the third-highest in Ravens history.
"I give it all to the offensive line," Rice said. "I get the glory because I get all the yards. But the line, what they do and the receivers blocking down field, that's how things happen."
Cleveland lost for the fifth time in six games, and the banged-up Browns have just three days to prepare for the Steelers, the division's other resident heavy.
Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs believes Cleveland has a long way to go to catch the North's leaders.
"It's a big gap," he said. "A big gap."
For the third straight week, the Ravens were without Ray Lewis, their motivational leader and star linebacker who has been slowed by a nagging toe injury. But the 5-foot-8, 212-pound Rice, who has become one of the NFL's best all-around backs, carried the load and made sure Baltimore didn't miss a beat.
"Getting this win without No. 52 is a blessing," Rice said of Lewis, who prowled the sideline yelling encouragement at his teammates and taunting the Browns. "When I came off to the sideline, he was coaching me as well. He said he was a running back in high school and was giving tips."
The Ravens hadn't played since Thanksgiving and were out of sync at times. However, they were finally able to beat a weaker opponent following a quality win. Three times this season, they had stubbed their toe on the road following victories. But despite two botched field goals, and a costly fumble, the Ravens pushed toward the playoffs.
"As long as we keep winning we are in control," Flacco said. "We have some tough games left, but it's all up to us."
The Browns have a date in Pittsburgh on Thursday that they can't break.
Quarterback Colt McCoy injured his right knee in the first quarter, but stayed in and finished 17 of 35 for 192 yards and a TD.
However, McCoy fell to 0-7 in his career against division opponents, and once again had several passes — including one sure TD — dropped.
After throwing a short pass, McCoy was hit by Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones. At first, McCoy, whose white No. 12 jersey was smeared with grass stains and dirt, appeared to be seriously injured. Backup Seneca Wallace came in for one play, but McCoy returned the next time Cleveland got the ball.
McCoy said his knee didn't bother him, but he favored it as he left the stadium.
"I think it's going to be all right," said McCoy, who will likely undergo an MRI. "I don't know if somebody hit it or it hit the ground"
His teammates didn't help, dropping at least four passes, none bigger than the one tight end Evan Moore let slip through his hands in back of the end zone with the Browns only down 10-0.
"I have no excuses," Moore said. "I just have to catch it. It was a great ball by Colt."
Browns running back Peyton Hillis also sustained an unspecified leg injury. The Browns don't believe it's related to the strained hamstring that sidelined him for five straight games.
Notes: Flacco improved to 7-0 against the Browns. ... Hillis had 23 yards on his first three carries, but 22 on his next nine. ... Rice has four of his 12 100-yard games this season. .... Boldin had two catches, giving him 700 for his career. ... Browns RB Montario Hardesty was active after missing four straight games with a calf injury but was in for only three plays. .... Three of the Ravens' top four rushing performances have come against the Browns. ... Jackson had a season-high 12 tackles.