Baltimore, MD – The regular referees returned to game action on Thursday and nearly played an integral role in the outcome of the Baltimore Ravens' 23-16 victory over the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium.
After the controversial ruling that decided Monday's game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, the league and the referees' union agreed to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement late Wednesday night, bringing regular referees back to the field to officiate all Week 4 games.
With Cleveland trailing by seven and just over a minute left, the Browns got the ball at their own 10-yard line and Brandon Weeden completed a pair of passes to move his squad to midfield.
Weeden then hit Benjamin Watson for 17 yards down to the Baltimore 33 before spiking the ball to stop the clock with 23 seconds remaining.
After back-to-back incompletions, Weeden threw a Hail Mary pass into the corner of the end zone that was knocked away, but the referees called an unnecessary roughness penalty on Paul Kruger, who appeared to shove Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas after the play.
Cleveland was unable to take advantage of the call however, as Weeden's desperation heave sailed out of back of the end zone, sending the Browns to their ninth straight defeat against the Ravens.
Weeden finished 25-of-52 passing for 320 yards and an interception and Trent Richardson carried the ball 14 times for 47 yards and a score for the Browns (0-4), who remain the lone winless team in the AFC.
"I think he made progress as a player tonight," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said of his rookie quarterback. "When you really make progress is when you lead your team to victory."
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco was an efficient 28-of-46 for 356 yards, a touchdown pass and an interception, while Ray Rice rushed 18 times for 49 yards and added eight catches for 47 yards, as the Ravens (3-1) won their 13th consecutive home game, which is the longest current home winning streak in the NFL.
"We won three games against very good competition in 17 days," Ravens coach John Harbaugh remarked. "That's an accomplishment."
Torrey Smith added six catches for 97 yards and a score and Anquan Boldin led the receiving corps with nine receptions for 131 yards.
Baltimore struck first early in the second quarter, as Flacco found Tandon Doss for 39 yards on 3rd-and-7 and then hit Smith for 34 more down the sideline to move the Ravens into the red zone.
Two plays later, Flacco hit Smith on a post route for an 18-yard touchdown pass, but holder Sam Koch missed the snap on the extra point, leaving Baltimore with a 6-0 edge.
A quick three-and-out gave possession back to the Ravens, who got a 45-yard field goal from Justin Tucker to extend the margin to 9-0.
The teams then exchanged three-and-outs, and Baltimore pinned Cleveland at its own 6-yard line.
Weeden kept the drive alive by finding Watson for six yards on 3rd-and-4 before connecting with Greg Little on a 43-yard pass to move the Browns across midfield for the first time.
Weeden hit Travis Benjamin for 12 yards and three plays later, found Benjamin for 14 more down to the Baltimore 1.
Richardson then finished off the 11-play, 94-yard drive with a sweep around the left end for a 1-yard TD run to bring the Browns within 9-7.
Baltimore opened the second half with a 13-play, 89-yard scoring drive, highlighted by three big receptions by Boldin.
Boldin's third catch of the drive, a 21-yarder, moved the Ravens down to the Cleveland 2, and after Rice was stuffed on 2nd-and-goal, Flacco faked the handoff and bootlegged right before making a defender miss en route to a 1- yard touchdown run to give the Ravens a 16-7 lead.
Cleveland responded with a 51-yard field goal from Phil Dawson that was set up by an unnecessary roughness penalty on Bernard Pollard, which moved Cleveland to the Baltimore 35.
The call garnered boos from the Baltimore fans, who applauded the regular referees as they entered M&T Bank to take the field for the first time this season.
After Tucker missed a 47-yard field goal on Baltimore's ensuing possession, Cary Williams picked up the slack, as he stepped in front of a Weeden pass and took it 63 yards down the right sideline for his first career touchdown return to give Baltimore a 23-10 edge late in the third.
The Browns answered with a 50-yard field goal from Dawson and got great field position later in the fourth when Benjamin returned a punt 40 yards to the Baltimore 46, setting up Dawson's 52-yarder to bring the Browns within 23-16.
Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis (2000-06) was inducted into the Ravens' ring of honor at halftime ... Baltimore owns a 20-7 lead in its all-time series with Cleveland ... Cleveland has last 10 straight games dating back to last season ... The Browns last started 0-4 in 2009 ... Cleveland kick returner Joshua Cribbs left the game in the first quarter with a head injury.