Joe Flacco ran for one touchdown and threw for another to lead Baltimore over Cleveland 23-16 on Thursday as regular NFL union referees returned to work to a pre-game standing ovation.
Four nights after Baltimore edged New England on a last-second field goal and three nights after replacement referees botched a controversial last-play call to decide a game, American football returned to normal.
The Ravens stretched their home win streak to 13 games, the NFL’s longest current run, and improved to 3-1 by stopping a late threat from winless Cleveland.
“With the wisdom we have and the young players we are adding into our defense, 3-1 is huge after the first quarter [of the season],” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said.
Union referees whistled penalties for the first time following three weeks of replacement officials before the league and the referees’ union agreed to a new eight-year contract on Wednesday night to end a lockout that began in June.
Gene Steratore, beginning his 10th NFL season as a referee, and each person in a six-man crew that averaged 10 years of experience tipped his cap to the crowd as the officials walked onto the field to cheers, a rare treat for them.
Their return came after a poor call by replacements on the last play of the game gave Seattle a Monday victory over Green Bay, sparking criticism that even had US President Barack Obama calling for an end to the lockout.
“We’re sorry to have put fans through that,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Sometimes you have to go through something like that in the short term for the right agreement for the long term. Obviously, when you go through something like this, it’s painful for everybody.”
The first penalty against the home side came 3 minutes, 42 seconds into the game and sparked the usual chorus of boos at the referees, with one fan’s sign saying: “We’re glad we can boo the real refs.”
Ravens’ supporters spent much of their time cheering, despite Baltimore becoming the first NFL team since 1939 to play four games in only 18 days.
“We’re happy to come away with the win and get a little rest,” Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin said.
Flacco scored on a 1-yard touchdown run 5:07 into the third quarter, but the Browns pulled within 16-10 on a 51-yard Phil Dawson field goal.
Baltimore’s Cary Williams intercepted a Brandon Weeden pass to the left sideline and returned the ball 63 yards for a touchdown to give the Ravens a 23-10 lead with 15 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Dawson kicked field goals of 50 and 52 yards to pull Cleveland within 23-16 and the Browns drove from their 10 yard line to the Ravens’ 33 in the dying seconds, but were unable to deliver a tying touchdown.
The Ravens opened the scoring 2:03 into the second quarter on Flacco’s 18 yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith.
Smith played for the second time since his brother, Tevin Jones, was killed in a motorcycle crash on Sunday morning.
The Browns, who along with New Orleans are the only winless teams in the NFL, fell to 0-4. Going back to last season, the Browns have dropped 10 games in a row, 13 of 14 overall. They have lost nine in a row to the Ravens.
The NFL’s three undefeated teams after three games — the Atlanta Falcons, Arizona Cardinals and Houston Texans — each play at home tomorrow against foes who have lost two of their first three games.