Ray Lewis took a chance, and what a chance it was.
The star linebacker shot the gap and met Darren Sproles head-on on fourth-and-2 in the closing seconds, with brute strength winning out over speed and shiftiness.
A game that seemingly was going to be decided by Philip Rivers instead was sealed by Lewis, whose big play saved a 31-26 win for the Baltimore Ravens over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
"That was probably one of the greatest plays of my career because of my team, because of what we did as a team," said Lewis, a former Super Bowl MVP, 10-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The Chargers needed a touchdown to win and had the ball on Baltimore's 15 with 33 seconds left. Lewis came in unblocked and slammed the little running back to the ground for a 5-yard loss, and the Ravens (2-0) ran out the clock.
The Chargers ran the play earlier but Lewis missed making the tackle. Knowing the consequences of letting the Chargers convert, Lewis said he needed to shoot the gap _ and find the ball carrier.
"When the game was on the line, as soon as Philip dropped down, I shot and he was there. He was there, man," Lewis said.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the Chargers know how to win games at the end. "I guess Ray Lewis knows a little more, he knows a little better," Harbaugh said. "He made the greatest football play I've ever seen."
Rivers almost single-handedly kept the short-handed Chargers (1-1) in the game, throwing for a career-high 436 yards and two touchdowns. But he also had two interceptions, and San Diego had to settle for field goals four times when it had the ball at the Ravens 10 or closer.
Rivers said the Chargers ran the play they felt gave them the best chance for a first down.
"You can't keep throwing it, throwing it and throwing it _ well, you can," Rivers said. "It was a play that we didn't execute. It's tough to end that way."
Rivers tied Hall of Famer Dan Fouts for third-most passing yards in a game.
A week after amassing a franchise-record 501 yards in a win against Kansas City, the Ravens couldn't quite put away the Chargers. San Diego was missing running back LaDainian Tomlinson, center Nick Hardwick and right guard Louis Vasquez due to injuries, and on Saturday put defensive tackle Jamal Williams on injured reserve, meaning his season is over.
Baltimore's Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes and Willis McGahee ran for two more.
The killers for the Chargers were their inability to score touchdowns and a bad decision by Rivers.
The Chargers got to the Ravens 5, 2 and 1 in the first half, and had to settle for field goals by Kaeding each time.
Trailing 21-13, the Chargers got to the 1-yard line on a 24-yard pass from Rivers to Vincent Jackson. The play was upheld by replay, and the Chargers were called for delay of game. Rivers threw two incompletions, and coach Norv Turner's decision to kick on third down with 10 seconds left drew plenty of boos.
Kaeding made the 23-yarder to pull to 21-16. He also had kicks of 29 and 22 yards.
It happened again midway through the fourth quarter, after Flacco was hit by Shawne Merriman and intercepted by Antoine Cason. The Chargers moved to the Ravens 10, bogged down _ including another delay penalty _ and got a 25-yard field goal from Kaeding to make it 28-26.
"They pressure down there so you're trying to sort things out of how to block," Rivers said. They brought as many as they could bring on some of them. I think it was more a lack of execution than anything and those delays that killed us."
Baltimore's Steve Hauschka kicked a 33-yarder with 2:54 left.
In the third quarter, Rivers was under pressure from Lewis at the Chargers 34, was turned sideways and blindly tried to throw the ball away. Safety Dawan Landry intercepted and pitched it to Ed Reed for a short return to the 22. Four plays later, Flacco threw a 9-yard TD pass to tight end Todd Heap for a 28-16 lead.
Rivers came back and found Jackson behind double coverage for a 35-yard touchdown pass on third-and-18 to pull the Chargers to 28-22 with 2:26 left in the third quarter.
The Ravens forgot to cover Sproles on San Diego's second possession of the game and he turned a swing pass from Rivers into an 81-yard touchdown for a 7-0 lead. Sproles raced down the right sideline before cutting inside and beating Reed to the end zone. Sproles had 278 all-purpose yards.
A week after throwing for a career-high 307 yards, Flacco was 17 of 26 for 190 yards.
NOTES: Sproles caught seven passes for a career-high 124 yards and Jackson had six catches for 141. ... Merriman and fellow OLB Shaun Phillips both had groin injuries. ... Ravens CB Fabian Washington sustained a concussion.