OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens appear to be at their best offensively when quarterback Joe Flacco spends most of the game handing off the football instead of dropping back to throw.
That's how the Ravens beat Cleveland on Sunday, and that just might be their best course of action right up to and through the playoffs.
Baltimore (9-3) set a franchise record with 55 rushing attempts against the Browns in a 24-10 victory. Ray Rice led the way with a career-best 204 yards rushing on 29 carries, and Ricky Williams chipped in with 76 yards on 16 attempts.
The Ravens won their only Super Bowl in 2001 with an offense dominated by running back Jamal Lewis and a defense centered around middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Jamal Lewis is retired and Ray Lewis has missed three straight games with a toe injury, but the formula for success hasn't changed.
"We believe in running the football, absolutely," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We think you have to run the ball and stop the run to be the kind of physical football team we want to be."
Flacco threw only 23 passes against the Browns, but Harbaugh attributed the run-pass imbalance in part to the muddy field in Cleveland.
"We felt like we could run the ball, possibly. We wanted to be able to do that," the coach said. "On the same token, it was rainy and it was windy and the field was real sloppy. The conditions for throwing the ball weren't really ideal. ... We try to be built for all weather conditions, but I think the way the game played out, the type of game it was, the best approach was to run the ball and keep running the ball because we were having some success doing it."
In losses to Jacksonville and Seattle, the Ravens abandoned the run and attempted to win through the air. Baltimore has won its share of games on the strength of Flacco's throwing arm, but this team seems to be at its best when it uses the run to set up the pass.
Against the Browns, the offensive line was only too happy to surge forward instead of drop back into pass protection.
"The guys up front did a great job," fullback Vonta Leach said. "Ray did a good job of hitting those holes. Obviously with the weather the way it was and the field the way it was, you got to run the ball. We established the run and we kept with it."
Center Matt Birk said, "That's what we need to do. It was that kind of game. As an offense, we were able to run the ball."
The Ravens have thrown 412 passes this season and have 284 rushes. That is, in part, because the NFL has become a passing league and Baltimore has a host of capable receivers, including Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith.
So Harbaugh isn't about to commit entirely to the run as the Ravens seek to stay on course to capture the AFC North title — and perhaps the top seed in the conference.
"The teams that are scoring the most points are the teams that are throwing the ball the most," Harbaugh said. "But our objective here is not to score the most points, per se. It's to score more points than our opponent on any given Sunday. That's why we're really not willing to sit here and say that we are a run-first outfit."
But to win in December, when the weather gets cold and the pressure to win intensifies, the Ravens have found that smashmouth football is far more effective than finesse.
"We've always had good teams. We play good defense. We've been able to run the ball," Harbaugh said. "Some years we've been better running the ball. We'd like to believe that we're built for December. Everything we do is built for December. We're trying to be our best in December and January."
The Ravens have four games left, the next three against losing teams. The winless Indianapolis Colts (0-12) come to Baltimore on Sunday, and although it seems as if the Ravens could afford to let Lewis rest his ailing right toe another week, Harbaugh doesn't see it that way.
"We're going to try to win the game against the Colts," Harbaugh said. "We want to go in there full strength. Obviously a healthy Ray Lewis, playing at the caliber he's capable of playing at, helps us beat the Colts. Is he going to be ready to do that? We don't know. He says he's going to be ready to do it. He's got some orthotics that may give him a chance."
Baltimore has won three straight without Lewis, who has watched from the sideline in each instance.
"We have, probably, been somewhat cautious," Harbaugh acknowledged. "We want to make sure that he doesn't re-injure it. So, we'll just have to see how it goes again this week."