By DAVID GINSBURG, Associated Press
BALTIMORE (AP) — A game that featured nearly 800 yards in offense, an interception return for a touchdown, helmet-loosening hits and a thrilling finish may best be remembered for what it didn't have: Controversy over the officiating.
The regular officials returned to the field Thursday night, and they nearly had to work overtime on their first day back. Rookie Brandon Weeden misfired on two passes into the end zone in the final seconds, allowing the Baltimore Ravens to escape with a 23-16 win over the Cleveland Browns.
It was an ending similar to that of the Seattle-Green Bay game just three nights earlier, when a Hail Mary pass was ruled a touchdown. That call created a furor among players and fans, and was a major factor in hastening negotiations that led to the end of the lockout and the dismissal of the replacement refs.
The regular refs were delighted to return, and the players and coaches were happy to see them.
"Awesome having those guys back. Good to see familiar faces," Ravens safety Ed Reed said.
Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, who hugged referee Gene Steratore before the game, said, "It was the first time I really got excited about the referees. I'm glad we got to the point where it was settled because the game, as we saw, was suffering."
Steratore couldn't remember the last time he spent a September at home, and it wasn't until he returned that he realized how much he loved his job.
"Just to come back and feel that again, it doesn't take long to realize why you were missing it as much as you were missing it," he said.
Before the pregame coin flip, 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.
Afterward, Ravens coach John Harbaugh echoed the sentiment of the crowd.
"Welcome back to the officials. Good to have them back," he said. "These guys are really good. The communication was good. I didn't agree with every call, but they were excellent."
Steratore and his crew had to deal with a wild finish before calling it a night.
Cleveland (0-4) began its final drive with 1:05 to go on its own 10. 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 Baltimore linebacker Paul Kruger gave the Browns one more chance.
That pass sailed out of the end zone.
"Too much juice," Weeden lamented. "That being said, I'm proud as hell of this football team. I know we lost. It stinks, it really does. But we fought literally to the last second."
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.
"I thought our secondary made plays that had to be made, especially at the end there when they were knocking at the door," Harbaugh said. "Cary Williams was the difference in the game with the interception return for a touchdown."
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 victory 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. Baltimore has also won nine straight over Cleveland.
Anquan Boldin caught nine passes for 131 yards, and Torrey Smith had six catches for 97 yards and a score.
Weeden went 25 for 52 for 320 yards, but rookie running back Trent Richardson gained only 47 yards rushing on 14 carries. Dawson kicked field goals of 51, 50 and 52 yards, the last one with 4:33 left to make it 23-16.
It's the third time since 1998 that the Browns have lost their first four games. They finished 2-14 in 1999 and 5-11 in 2009.
Coach Pat Shurmur applauded the performance of the refs, and acknowledged he deserved an unsportsmanlike conduct call in the fourth quarter.
"I can't do that," he said. "It's an emotional game, and I got to make sure I keep my emotions in check."
Cleveland played the majority of the game without wide receiver and punt returner Joshua Cribbs, who sustained a concussion while returning a kick late in the first quarter.
Cribbs had his helmet knocked off and lost the handle on the ball after absorbing a hard hit by Dannell Ellerbe. It was a legal tackle, shoulder to helmet, and the officials did not call a penalty. Cribbs lay prone for several minutes before finally rising to his feet and walking off the field.
NOTES: Former Browns and Ravens RB Jamal Lewis was inducted in Baltimore's Ring of Honor. ... Cleveland safeties Tashaun Gipson and Usama Young both sustained knee injuries. ... Dawson is the seventh player in NFL history to kick three FGs of at least 50 yards in a game.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.