NEW ORLEANS – After each of his two touchdowns, Justin Forsett kneeled in the end zone, spread his arms wide and tilted his head back as if gazing toward the heavens beyond the Superdome roof. As he did so, the Ravens running back couldn't help but think of how much his career has changed in a year.
He played in nine games and rushed for 31 yards all of last season with the languishing Jacksonville Jaguars, who then let him go in the offseason.
On Monday night, before a national television audience, his very first carry went for 38 yards and he finished with a career-high 182 yards rushing to lead playoff-contending Baltimore to a 34-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
"It's crazy, man. You think about where I was this time last year, mostly doing a lot of scout team work and coming in (to play) every once in a while," Forsett said. "To just get the opportunity when I thought I would never get it again, it's a blessing."
While Forsett is grateful to the Ravens for the chance they gave him, Baltimore (7-4) might say the feeling is mutual. No one really knew how the Ravens' running game would fare after Ray Rice was suspended and later released because of an assault on his wife that was captured by hotel video cameras.
With five games still to go, Forsett has rushed for 903 yards and seven TDs while averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
"The work he's putting in, the results he's getting and what he's doing for this team was huge," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who passed for 243 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans. "He's not letting the guy tackle him in the hole with his arms or anything like that. He's breaking those little things."
The Saints, meanwhile, appear to be breaking down. They lost their third straight despite Drew Brees' 420 yards and three touchdowns passing. When Brees did make a mistake, it was costly. His lone interception was returned 44 yards for a touchdown by Will Hill in the third quarter, giving the Ravens a lead they never relinquished.
"This is a game of inches and split seconds and unfortunately a lot of those have not gone our way this year," said Brees, who was also sacked four times. "We've got to accept what's happened but remain undeterred in regards to our direction. We just need a win. Winning cures a lot of things."
Indeed, a win could make the Saints (4-7) feel a lot better about their playoff chances. Despite their recent slide, they're still tied for first place with Atlanta in the anemic NFC South.
Here are some things to know about the Ravens' triumphant return to the stadium where they won the 2013 Super Bowl:
FORSETT A FORCE: Forsett is punishing defenses that have struggled against the run. He's now broken the 100-yard mark and scored twice in two straight games. He rushed for 112 yards in his previous outing against Tennessee.
DOME DOLDRUMS: Until recently, the Saints have been tough to beat in the Superdome, particularly in night games. Either their dome advantage has vanished or they're just not very good right now. They've not only lost three straight in the dome, but saw their 14-game winning streak in night home games snapped. The last time they lost three straight in the Superdome in a single season was in 2001.
DIVISIONAL DIVIDE: Those arguing that the NFC South is weak can point to the division's record against the AFC North. Baltimore's victory over New Orleans improved the AFC North's record against NFC South teams this season to 10-1-1.
SURGING SMITH: Veteran receiver Steve Smith, who tormented the Saints for much of his 13 seasons in Carolina, left the NFC South for Baltimore but wound up playing once more in the Superdome. He caught four passes for 89 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown while crashing down backward. Smith now has 11 TD catches against New Orleans, more than he has against any other team.
PASS HAPPY: A week ago, the Saints lost second-leading receiver Brandin Cooks to a season-ending broken thumb. That didn't stop Brees from having one of his most productive performances this season. He found Kenny Stills for 98 yards and Marques Colston for 82 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Jimmy Graham had two short TD catches, and Joseph Morgan had a 67-yard reception the only time Brees threw to him.
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