The fans' expectations for the Baltimore Ravens certainly have changed in a short time span: Today, the crowd began booing the home team after it had built a 16-point lead late in the game.
Although its offense sputtered and stalled at times, Baltimore's defense carried it today in a 31-8 victory over the New Orleans Saints at PSINet Stadium, keeping the Ravens undefeated in December.
The Ravens (7-7) set a franchise record for most wins in a season and tied a team record by winning their third consecutive game. Baltimore's slim playoff hopes remained alive as the team got its fifth victory in seven games.
Given the Ravens' recent turnaround, the players didn't mind hearing the boos.
"Because [the fans] want more, that's a loving boo," running back Errict Rhett said.
"That's like a boo-yeahhhh. That's one of them boos that hurts so good. . . . We want our fans to have confidence that we're supposed to beat people like that."
Although Baltimore took an early lead that New Orleans never threatened, the fans seemed frustrated with an offense that repeatedly punted after three downs late in the game, after backup quarterback Stoney Case replaced starter Tony Banks.
"We learned some lessons today," Baltimore Coach Brian Billick said. "Fortunately, they weren't painful lessons because we won.
"The defense is playing magnificently. The offense, well, we've had a better day."
Apart from wide receiver Qadry Ismail and running back Priest Holmes, there were few offensive highlights. Ismail, who caught three touchdown passes last week against Pittsburgh, became the third player in Ravens history to surpass the 1,000-yard receiving mark after getting seven receptions for 115 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
Holmes shared the rushing duties today with Rhett, who had been sidelined the past two games with sore ribs. Holmes missed out on his third consecutive 100-yard rushing game--he had 10 carries for 28 yards--but turned out to be an impressive receiver. He caught the first touchdown pass of his career, a 34-yard reception that gave Baltimore a 10-0 lead.
Meanwhile, the Ravens defense set a franchise record by holding the Saints (2-12) to 11 rushing yards on 16 carries and eight first downs. Their four interceptions tied a single-game team record.
"We kind of knew they wouldn't be able to run on us," Billick said. "No one has.
"The main thing we stressed was let's not give up anything cheap. Let's not give up the big play."
After the teams failed to convert a first down on any of the first six series of the game, safety Rod Woodson intercepted Billy Joe Tolliver's pass and returned the ball 31 yards to set up Baltimore's first score.
Matt Stover's 36-yard field goal put the Ravens ahead 3-0.
As Baltimore's offense slowly built its lead, the defense held the Saints scoreless until the final 10 minutes 30 seconds of the game. After Tolliver connected with wide receiver Keith Poole on a 20-yard touchdown pass, Tolliver found tight end Cameron Cleeland in the end zone for a two-point conversion.
Even the Ravens' much-maligned secondary turned in a solid performance.
After getting beaten early in the game by Eddie Kennison for an 18-yard pass play, cornerback Duane Starks did a nice job the rest of the game covering Saints receivers. He had a career-high seven passes defensed and five tackles.
Late in the fourth quarter, Starks prevented a New Orleans score when he leapt in front of Poole in the end zone for his first interception this season.
Banks completed 24 of 36 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns, raising his season total to 16. However Banks, who had not thrown an interception since Nov. 28 against Jacksonville, was picked off three times.
New Orleans tried three different quarterbacks to jump-start its offense. Tolliver was replaced by Billy Joe Hobert for one series after suffering a rib injury. Third-string quarterback Danny Wuerffel finished the game.
"We knew we had to go out and win this game, the games we are supposed to win," Starks said. "We have to go out and do like we did today.
"It's coming down close to the end and it's so important right now that we win each and every game. That's our main focus."