Gene Steratore and the regular refs were back Thursday night. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

The NFL’s regular referees — the real refs — returned Thursday night, working the Cleveland Browns‘ game against the Baltimore Ravens in M & T Bank Stadium and, for a few moments, the scene was surreal.

They were greeted with a standing ovation and cheers. There were none of the “manure” chants that marred the nationally-telecast game from Baltimore on Sunday. Players and coaches greeted referee Gene Steratore and his crew warmly. “Good evening, men. It’s good to be back,” Stenatore told players and, with that, everything went back to normal. The game flowed smoothly with an evident sense of control and confidence that these guys were 99.9 percent sure what to do in every situation. Not that they’re perfect, but over three weeks, the contrast and just what they had brought to the game became apparent, culminating in the Monday night debacle.

And, if anyone needed a reminder, one came at the end of the game, with rain falling. There were two desperation passes to the end zone by Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, uncomfortably similar to the end of the Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers game Monday night. On a drive that began with just over a minute left, the Browns drove to the Ravens’ 33, where their drive stalled. The refs whistled Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger for a personal foul and Weeden had another chance. Weeden, though, put “too much juice” on the ball and the Ravens came out with a 23-16 win.

“To just be applauded by 50,000 people prior to anything happening, it was something that kind of chokes you up,” Steratore said. “It was a very special feeling.”

Not that the game was free from some boos and some unhappiness. Browns Coach Pat Shurmur was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct when he argued about an intentional grounding call. Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher vocally protested a holding call.

“It was great to have those guys back,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said. “It looked like they knew what they were doing.”

 Yes, it was. And they did. Now all they have to do is ratify the agreement that came Wednesday night. They’ll vote Saturday, then work Sunday’s game if all goes well. 

“That was the first time I was ever actually excited to see a referee,” Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “… The game was so smooth. There was definitely a difference in it. Not to disrespect the other guys, but it was so smooth. He [Steratore] had command of everything. That’s the way the game should be.”

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Bill Clinton: “I would not have called that last play the way they did.”

Photos: The controversial final play in Seattle