Broncos rout Ravens 34-17 for 9th straight win

The Denver Broncos are gathering momentum and confidence as they
head toward another trip to the playoffs.

And the Baltimore Ravens? Well, after three straight defeats,
they’re running out of time to right themselves as they stagger to
the finish of what was once a very promising regular season.

The Broncos (11-3) rolled to their ninth straight victory
Sunday, using a 98-yard interception return by Chris Harris to
build a 17-point halftime lead en route to a surprisingly easy
34-17 victory.

The win was especially satisfying for the Broncos because it
came without Peyton Manning putting up spectacular numbers. Manning
went 17 for 28 for 204 yards and a touchdown.

The defense, however, dominated a Baltimore attack run by Jim
Caldwell, whose debut as an NFL offensive coordinator was a dud.
The Ravens finished with 56 yards rushing, including a meager 38
from Ray Rice on 12 carries.

”We shut the run down,” nose tackle Justin Bannan said. ”We
set the tone in the first half and kind of went from there.”

This was supposed to be a test for Denver, which was 0-5 in
Baltimore and was eager to defeat a quality opponent on the road.
Given the result, the Broncos aced the exam.

”To come in here and get a win like this against the Baltimore
Ravens, that doesn’t happen,” Bannan said. ”I’m very proud of our
team.”

The biggest play of the game was turned in by Harris, whose
pivotal interception return occurred in the closing seconds of the
first half. At the time, the Ravens (9-5) appeared poised to close
to 10-7. Instead, Baltimore left the field at halftime down by
17.

Game over.

”You come to the Ravens’ house and beat them handily, it’s
definitely a statement game,” Harris said. ”We definitely wanted
to show to everybody that we’re an elite team.”

And what are the Ravens? After a 9-2 start, Baltimore has lost
three straight overall for the first time since 2009 and two in a
row at home for the first time since December 2007.

The Ravens clinched a playoff berth as a wild-card team when
Pittsburgh lost to Dallas on Sunday night. Baltimore hopes to begin
its fifth straight postseason run as AFC North champions, a feat
that can be accomplished with one win in the last two games.

For that to happen, the Ravens must improve.

”We either put it on our shoulders, get it fixed, or we’ll weed
ourselves out like the other teams in the league,” Rice said.

The Ravens’ offense was playing its first game under Caldwell,
who replaced the fired Cam Cameron. Baltimore sputtered in the
first half, gaining only 119 yards and committing two turnovers
that led to 10 Denver points.

It was 31-3 in the fourth quarter before Flacco threw touchdown
passes of 31 and 61 yards to tight end Dennis Pitta. Flacco went 20
for 40 for 254 yards, lost a fumble and threw an interception.

”All we can do is put this one behind us and realize what we
have ahead of us,” Pitta said. ”We still have an opportunity to
win the division. We’ve just got to get back to work. We’re going
to get it done.”

Perhaps, but a rash of injuries and defeats isn’t doing much for
the team’s confidence.

”We’re a 9-5 football team and we feel like we’re 0-14 right
now,” Flacco said.

Baltimore’s previous two defeats were by three points apiece.
This one wasn’t even close, and the stadium was near empty in the
middle of the fourth quarter.

”As a player, I am embarrassed for our city,” safety Ed Reed
said.

Denver, on the other hand, hasn’t lost since Oct. 7, at New
England. The AFC West champions, who can still capture the top seed
in the conference, finish with home games against Cleveland and
Kansas City.

”We just try to get better every week,” coach John Fox
insisted. ”We’re not measuring ourselves right now. We need to
measure ourselves at the end to be the best.”

Baltimore’s first offensive series under Caldwell lasted three
plays and ended as Flacco fumbled on a third-and-1 plunge and the
Broncos recovered at the Denver 47, which led to a 27-yard field
goal for a 3-0 lead.

In the first quarter, Baltimore totaled 21 yards on 12 plays,
punted three times and lost a fumble.

Denver went up 10-0 when Jacob Hester ran in from the 1 to cap
an 11-play, 78-yard drive. Baltimore answered with three more
unproductive plays before punting. On their fifth drive, the Ravens
finally got their initial first down – on a 14-yard run by Bernard
Pierce with eight minutes left in the half.

Pierce eventually left the game with a concussion, as did wide
receiver Torrey Smith, who hit his head after attempting to make a
leaping catch near the sideline in the third quarter.

Denver pulled away with two third-quarter touchdowns. Manning
threw a 51-yard scoring pass to Eric Decker, and after the Ravens
went three-and-out, Knowshon Moreno ended a 39-yard drive with a
6-yard run to make it 31-3.

Decker caught eight passes for 133 yards and Moreno finished
with 118 yards rushing on 22 carries.

NOTES: Rice passed 1,000 yards rushing for a fourth straight
season. … Terrell Suggs returned for Baltimore after missing one
game with a torn biceps and made one tackle. … Hester’s score was
the second rushing touchdown of his career and the first since his
rookie season in 2008. … Pitta had seven catches for 125
yards.