BALTIMORE (AP) — 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.
“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.
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