By JEFF ZREBIEC
Tribune News Service
NEW ORLEANS -- The Ravens stayed at the same hotel and wore the same uniform combination they did when they last played a meaningful game here some 21 months ago.
Maybe the superstitions helped, but it was two of the many players not in the organization when the Ravens won their second NFL title who helped them to one of their biggest victories since Super Bowl XLVII.
Safety Will Hill's 44-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter gave the Ravens the lead for good Monday night. And running back Justin Forsett all but put the game away with his second rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter as the Ravens beat the New Orleans Saints, 34-27, before an announced 73,773 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Forsett rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns for the Ravens, who racked up 449 yards of total offense. The Saints (4-7) had 525, but it wasn't enough to prevent their third straight home loss.
"It was just a dogfight, like we knew it was going to be," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's a real good team. They're real well coached. It was the ultimate team win. ... We fought through adversity and found a way to win against a really good football team. I'm proud of our guys."
With the win, the Ravens kept pace with the rest of the AFC North. The Cincinnati Bengals (7-3-1) lead the division, and the Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns are all a half-game behind with 7-4 records.
The Ravens also rank seventh in the AFC, a conference so competitive that many pundits are predicting that at least one team with a 10-6 record will not make the playoffs.
The Ravens would have to win three of their final five games to finish 10-6.
While they have just one division game remaining -- at home against the Browns in the Dec. 28 regular-season finale -- they can significantly help their wild-card chances when they face the San Diego Chargers (7-4) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium and the Miami Dolphins (6-5) on the road Dec.7.
Justin Tucker's 31-yard field goal capped the Ravens' 13-play drive to open the third quarter, and it tied the game at 17. That's when the Ravens' beleaguered secondary stepped up and made its biggest play of the season.
With the Saints facing third-and-7 from their own 41, quarterback Drew Brees tried to get the ball to his favorite target, Jimmy Graham. But the ball was thrown behind the big tight end, and Hill caught it in stride and ran the pick back for the touchdown. It was Hill's first interception of the season and just the third by a Ravens defensive back this season.
"As he threw the ball, it was behind him," Hill said. "I saw the opportunity and I just took it. It was great, especially on prime time, 'Monday Night Football.' Your team was down, and they really needed a boost. I was glad to be the one to give it."
It also gave the Ravens a 24-17 lead, which they expanded to 27-17 when Tucker's 55-yard field goal culminated a 12-play drive.
But the Saints answered immediately and made it a one-score game on Shayne Graham's 33-yard field goal. A nice break-up by Hill in the end zone on a pass intended for Graham forced the Saints to go for the field-goal try.
The Ravens got the ball back with a seven-point lead with 6:33 to play. When they relinquished it about four minutes later, their lead was two touchdowns. Forsett had put the exclamation point on the finest performance of his career with a 20-yard touchdown.
"It was pretty clean," he said. "I don't think I got touched."
The Ravens went into halftime trailing 17-14 and lamenting mistakes that had characterized their road struggles this season.
On offense, fullback Kyle Juszczyk lost a fumble at the Saints 1 line early in the second quarter. Otherwise, the group dominated the New Orleans defense in the first half, owning the line of scrimmage and paving the way for 253 yards of total offense.
On defense, Hill was penalized early for illegal use of his hands on a third-down drop by Graham. Keeping possession, Brees hit Joseph Morgan, who had gotten by cornerback Lardarius Webb, for a 62-yard completion on the next play, setting up a first-and-goal.
A miscommunication on defense left Graham, the Saints' top receiving threat, wide open in the flat, and Brees hit him for a 10-yard touchdown pass that tied the score at 7.
On New Orleans' second scoring drive, the Ravens thought they had the Saints stopped, but Haloti Ngata was called for roughing the passer after a third-down completion. Another long completion -- this one 33 yards to Kenny Stills, who pulled the ball away from Danny Gorrer -- followed, and the Saints had first-and-goal. The Ravens defense stiffened, holding the Saints to a 20-yard field goal by Shayne Graham that cut the Ravens' lead to 14-10.
But the Ravens gave New Orleans the ball back with 1:51 left in the second quarter. Brees got the ball at his own 19 and had no timeouts, but it didn't matter.
Brees went 4-for-6 for 72 yards on the drive, which ended with a 26-yard touchdown strike to Marques Colston. Matt Elam had good coverage on Colston on the play and rookie safety Terrence Brooks had great position to pick it off, but he didn't break on the ball and the Saints receiver caught it right in front of him.
It was that kind of half for the Ravens' much-maligned secondary, which allowed Brees to go 19-for-24 for 260 yards in a wildly entertaining first half that saw 601 combined yards of offense, one big goal-line stand and three replay reversals, all going against the Ravens.
The fireworks started early as Morgan took a reverse and sprinted down the left sideline for a 67-yard gain. Only an illegal horse-collar tackle by Webb prevented the touchdown and, ultimately, Saints points.
From the 1-yard line, the Saints tried Mark Ingram for back-to-back carries and he was stuffed. He fumbled on one, and the Ravens recovered, but the call was reviewed and Ingram was ruled down by contact. After a false-start penalty pushed the Saints back, Brees tried to run into the end zone, but he was stopped at the 1-yard line on a strong open-field tackle by Courtney Upshaw.
The Saints chose to go for it, but Ngata got penetration in the middle and blew the play up as he and Terrell Suggs tackled Ingram for a loss of 2 yards.
The Ravens got the ball at their own 3 and needed nine plays to turn the defensive stand into points. Forsett got the drive, and a huge first half, started with a 38-yard run. Flacco finished it, throwing a pass up to Steve Smith, who outmuscled Brian Dixon and made a circus catch in the end zone to give the Ravens a 7-0 lead. It was Smith's first touchdown since Oct. 12 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 13th in his career against the Saints.
The Ravens appeared primed to take a 14-7 lead when Juszczyk coughed the ball up at the 1-yard line after a 6-yard completion from Flacco. Juszczyk initially was ruled down by contact but Saints coach Sean Payton challenged the call and it was reversed, giving New Orleans the ball.