OWINGS MILLS, MD. (AP) - The Baltimore Ravens appear to have finally mastered the art of expanding a lead in the fourth quarter to seal a victory.
Of course, applying the proper finishing touch is much easier when facing a struggling opponent with a rusty quarterback.
After blowing a fourth-quarter lead in three of its previous four games, Baltimore scored 17 points over the final six minutes Sunday against Carolina to turn a seven-point edge into a 37-13. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis put the game out of reach by producing touchdowns off interceptions of journeyman Brian St. Pierre.
"Obviously, our two big players came up with two huge plays," coach John Harbaugh said Monday.
"It was just a matter of time before those guys make those plays," tight end Todd Heap said. "It was a pretty opportune time for both Ray and Ed (to have) back-to-back interceptions to score touchdowns. Huge point in the game for us, when we really needed it.
"It speaks a lot about our defense. It speaks a lot about those two guys."
The manner in which the Ravens closed the game was particularly satisfying because it came after a loss to Atlanta in which the Falcons moved 80 yards in 45 seconds to pull out a last-minute win.
"That's something we want to do every week," Harbaugh said of the finish in Carolina. "We talked about it in Atlanta: Let's get off the field, win this thing and close it out."
It didn't happen against the Falcons. Nor did it happen against New England and Buffalo _ Baltimore frittered away a 10-point cushion in the fourth quarter of both games and was forced to play overtime.
Against Carolina, the entire defense seemed focused on making the outcome of this game different.
"You watch the one interception Ray got, Jarret Johnson got a big hit on the quarterback that forced the ball to come out real fast," Harbaugh said. "It's kind of a team effort. You look at Ed's interception: Our linebackers were underneath that thing, forcing him to throw the ball over the top and into Ed's hands. Those were good plays."
Harbaugh noted that the quarter began with St. Pierre connecting with David Gettis for an 80-yard touchdown to get Carolina (1-9) within a touchdown.
"I was disappointed in the touchdown pass. That would have been part of closing the game out in the fourth quarter, too," he said. "We busted a coverage back there. That's something we need to work on."
Overall, it was hardly a sparkling performance.
"We were all disappointed we didn't play a dominant game, but we're happy with the win," Harbaugh said. "I think you take your victories where they come within the game, but by no means are we satisfied with the way we played."
Despite earning few style points, Baltimore (7-3) remained tied for first place in the AFC North with Pittsburgh with six weeks remaining in the regular season. The Ravens host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
If the Ravens manage to take a lead into the fourth quarter in one of those remaining games, they can only hope their experience against the Panthers will come in handy.
"To play like this in the fourth quarter and close the game out is huge," Reed said. "Coming off the loss against Atlanta, we want to build on this and build on the season and play better and close out games. We need to do it from start to finish if we want to compete in late December."