Fans cheer refs, and Ravens beat Browns 23-16
(AP) - The regular NFL officials returned to work Thursday night, and sure enough, their first game back came down to a Hail Mary pass.
Two of them, actually.
The Baltimore Ravens never trailed in a 23-16 victory over the winless Cleveland Browns, who took some of the attention away from the regular officials in this duel between AFC North rivals.
Down 23-16, Cleveland began its final drive with 1:05 to go on its own 10. Rookie Brandon Weeden moved the Browns to the Baltimore 33 before a fourth-down pass into the end zone fell incomplete. But a personal foul penalty on Paul Kruger gave Cleveland one more chance.
That pass sailed out of the end zone.
The final sequence was not unlike the controversial ending of Monday night's Green Bay-Seattle game, when the final pass was ruled a touchdown. That play, and the furor it created, hastened negotiations that ended the lockout.
Joe Flacco went 28 for 46 for 356 yards, threw one touchdown and ran for another. Yet, it wasn't until Cary Williams returned an interception 63 yards for a score at the end of the third quarter that the Ravens (3-1) put some distance between themselves and the young Browns (0-4).
A lockout of the league's regular officials ended late Wednesday, bringing about the exit of the unpopular replacement refs. And so, finally, the tenured officials were in place for Week 4.
As they walked onto the field hours before the game, the officiating crew received a round of applause and shouts of encouragement from fans in the lower sections. Head linesman Wayne Mackie and line judge Jeff Seeman both tipped their caps to acknowledge the support.
And then, before the pregame coin flip, referee Gene Steratore greeted the players at midfield by saying, "Good evening, men, it's good to be back."
Many in the sellout crowd of 70,944 stood and roared their approval.
The fans waited until the third quarter to boo the officials. On a 13-yard completion from Weeden to Benjamin Watson, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit. The crowd jeered the call, but replays appeared to confirm the penalty.
The 15-yard markoff set up a 51-yard field goal by Phil Dawson that got the Browns within 16-10.
Late in the quarter, Williams ambushed an out pattern by Travis Benjamin and took the interception down the right sideline for a 13-point lead.
It was the 13th consecutive home win for the Ravens, the longest current run in the NFL, and their streak of 10 straight wins in the division is also the most of any team.