Ravens hold on to beat Browns as refs return
The Baltimore Ravens heaped more early season misery on the Cleveland Browns with a 23-16 win on Thursday as the NFL's regular referees returned to action following a damaging months-long lockout.
The Ravens survived a late drive to make it nine consecutive wins over Cleveland and move to 3-1 on the season, while the Browns have yet to pick up a win at 0-4.
The returning officials were given a standing ovation before kick-off and Ravens hard man Ray Lewis even embraced referee Gene Steratore.
Talks between the League and referees association gathered pace earlier in the week amid a storm of criticism following a botched call by replacement officials that handed Seattle a victory at the expense of Green Bay on Monday.
Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, who made nine catches for 131 yards, was in no doubt what the returning officials brought to the game.
"Guys that are knowledgeable," Boldin said. "The game was over a lot quicker and I think everybody, including the fans, are happy to have the regular refs back.
"I think guys respect the regular refs and they understand they can't get away with things they were getting away with previously this season.
"So guys came out and played good clean ball."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco rushed for a touchdown and threw for another, completing 28 of 46 passes for 356 yards, while Browns rookie Brandon Weeden finished 25 of 52 for 320 yards with one costly interception.
With the game in the balance late in the third quarter, Baltimore's Cary Williams latched onto a Weeden pass and streaked 63 yards into the Browns' endzone to give the Ravens a 23-10 lead.
It was the seventh Weeden interception of the season, the most of any quarterback so far this season.
The first quarter failed to bring points for either side but it did bring an end to the night for Browns punt returner Joshua Cribbs, who was heavily concussed in a vicious but legal hit by Dannell Ellerbe.
Flacco and wide receiver Torrey Smith went to work early in the second quarter, connecting on 39 and 34-yard plays before the Baltimore quarterback fired an 18-yard bullet pass down the middle to the same man for the opening touchdown.
A botched extra point attempt left the lead at just 6-0 but they extended it by three when Justin Tucker nailed a 45-yard field goal soon after.
With time running down in the half, Weeden pushed the Browns on a 94-yard scoring drive, ending with a Trent Richardson one-yard run to go into the break 9-7 down.
Flacco regained the momentum early in the third quarter, finishing off an 89-yard drive by rushing into the endzone to give the Ravens a 16-7 lead.
Browns kicker Phil Dawson clawed back some of the lead with a 51-yard field goal before Weeden's crucial interception gave the Ravens a 23-10 advantage.
Two more Dawson field goals gave the Browns late hope but despite getting 17 yards shy of the goal line on the final drive Weeden could not find a receiver and his last pass went through the endzone as time expired. (Reporting by Ben Everill in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Rutherford)