BALTIMORE (AP) — The regular NFL officials returned to cheers Thursday night, and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco delighted the crowd by throwing for one touchdown and running for another to help Baltimore take a 23-10 lead over the winless Cleveland Browns after three quarters.
A 63-yard interception return for a touchdown by Cary Williams with 15 seconds left in the third quarter turned a slim 16-10 lead into a 13-point cushion. The pass by rookie Brandon Weeden was intended for Travis Benjamin, but Williams jumped the out pattern and raced down the right sideline with his first career interception.
A lockout of the league's regular officials ended late Wednesday, bringing about the exit of the controversial replacement refs. And so, finally, the real officials were in place for Week 4, beginning with this matchup of AFC North rivals.
As they walked onto the field hours before the game, the officiating crew received a round of applause and shouts of encouragement from fans in the lower sections. Head linesman Wayne Mackie and line judge Jeff Seeman both tipped their caps to acknowledge the support.
And then, before the pregame coin flip, referee Gene Steratore greeted the players at midfield by saying, "Good evening, men, it's good to be back."
Many in the sellout crowd stood and roared their approval.
After a scoreless first quarter, Baltimore went up 6-0 on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Torrey Smith. The conversion failed.
On the Ravens' next drive, rookie Justin Tucker kicked a 45-yard field goal.
Cleveland got back into the game with an 11-play, 94-yard march directed by Weeden, who connected with Greg Little for 43 yards before rookie Trent Richardson ran in from the 1.
A light rain turned heavier at halftime, but it did not immediately deter the Baltimore offense.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, Flacco took the Ravens 89 yards in 13 plays for a 16-7 lead. Flacco completed five passes during the march, including three to Anquan Boldin for 60 yards, before the quarterback ran in from the 1 on a third-and-goal.
Later in the quarter, Tucker missed the first field goal try of his career, a 47-yarder that sailed wide right.
The Browns were forced to play most of the game without wide receiver and punt returner Joshua Cribbs, who left with a head injury after absorbing a hard hit late in the first quarter. Cribbs was running back a punt when he lost his helmet while taking a shot from the shoulder of Dannell Ellerbe. Cribbs lay prone for several minutes before being helped from the field.
Cribbs lost the ball on the play, and Jameel McClain recovered the fumble. But Baltimore gave it back when Flacco's pass into the end zone was intercepted by linebacker Craig Robertson.
Flacco had thrown 125 passes without being picked off before Robertson stepped in front of Anquan Boldin.
During pregame practice, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis spoke with Steratore and gave him a hug. Steratore turned around and shook hands with Ravens safety Ed Reed, who spoke out against the replacement refs.
Many of the fans filing into the stadium spoke delightedly about the demise of the replacements.
"It was very chaotic," 44-year-old Karen Riley said. "They couldn't control the players on either side. There were bad calls, constantly, and in some cases refs making different calls at the same time."
Eric Warthen, who attended the game with his son, said, "I grew up in a union family so I understand. We really didn't get the best product.
"I don't think they tarnished the NFL image. I think they tarnished (Commissioner) Roger Goodell's image," Warthen said. "When he came on a few years ago he had a no-nonsense attitude, a safety-first attitude. With the replacement refs there have been a lot of bad hits."
Hours before kickoff, as Steratore prepared for his first game in nearly a year, he said, "Very elated to be back. It feels like being back home."