BALTIMORE – The regular NFL officials returned to action, and the ending of their first game was eerily familiar to the one that hastened the exit of the replacement refs.
This time, however, there were no replays or arguments at the end. Just another win by the Baltimore Ravens over the Cleveland Browns, 23-16 on Thursday night.
If not for two failed desperation passes into the end zone in the closing seconds, the returning officials might have had to work overtime on their first night back.
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 Baltimore linebacker Paul Kruger gave winless Cleveland one more chance.
That pass sailed out of the end zone.
"Too much juice," Weeden lamented.
The final sequence was not unlike the controversial ending of Monday night's Green Bay-Seattle game, when a Hail Mary pass was ruled a touchdown. That play, and the furor it created, hastened negotiations that brought the regular officials back.
The lockout ended late Wednesday, bringing about the exit of the unpopular replacement refs. And so, finally, the tenured officials were in place for Week 4.
"I felt so bad for that Green Bay situation," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "Replacement refs, their families, I can't knock them. The scrutiny they were under. That kind of scrutiny is bad. It's hard going from like Pop Warner to the big leagues."
As they walked onto the field hours before this 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.
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."
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).
"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 Wiliams 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 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. 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 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.
Flacco went 16 for 26 for 186 yards and a touchdown to stake the Ravens to 9-7 halftime lead.
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.