By DAVID GINSBURG, AP Sports Writer
BALTIMORE (AP) — The regular NFL officials returned to work Thursday night, and sure enough, their first game back came down to a Hail Mary pass.
Two of them, actually.
The Baltimore Ravens never trailed in a 23-16 victory over the winless Cleveland Browns, who took some of the attention away from the regular officials in this duel between AFC North rivals.
Down 23-16, Cleveland began its final drive with 1:05 to go on its own 10. Rookie Brandon Weeden moved the Browns to the Baltimore 33 before a fourth-down pass into the end zone fell incomplete. But a personal foul penalty on Paul Kruger gave Cleveland one more chance.
That pass sailed out of the end zone.
The final sequence was not unlike the controversial ending of Monday night's Green Bay-Seattle game, when the final pass was ruled a touchdown. That play, and the furor it created, hastened negotiations that ended the lockout.
Joe Flacco went 28 for 46 for 356 yards, threw one touchdown and ran for another. Yet, it wasn't until Cary Williams returned an interception 63 yards for a score at the end of the third quarter that the Ravens (3-1) put some distance between themselves and the young Browns (0-4).
A lockout of the league's regular officials ended late Wednesday, bringing about the exit of the unpopular replacement refs. And so, finally, the tenured officials were in place for Week 4.
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 of 70,944 stood and roared their approval.
The fans waited until the third quarter to boo the officials. On a 13-yard completion from Weeden to Benjamin Watson, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit. The crowd jeered the call, but replays appeared to confirm the penalty.
The 15-yard markoff set up a 51-yard field goal by Phil Dawson that got the Browns within 16-10.
Late in the quarter, Williams ambushed an out pattern by Travis Benjamin and took the interception down the right sideline for a 13-point lead.
It was the 13th consecutive home win for the Ravens, the longest current run in the NFL, and their streak of 10 straight wins in the division is also the most of any team.
Anquan Boldin caught nine passes for 131 yards, and Torrey Smith had six catches for 97 yards and a score.
Weeden went 25 for 52 for 320 yards, and rookie running back Trent Richardson gained only 47 yards rushing on 14 carries. Dawson kicked field goals of 51, 50 and 52 yards, the last one with 4:33 left made it 23-16.
It's the third time since 1998 that the Browns have lost their first four games. They finished 2-14 in 1999 and 5-11 in 2009.
Cleveland played the majority of the game without wide receiver and punt returner Joshua Cribbs, who sustained a head injury while returning a kick late in the first quarter.
Cribbs had his helmet knocked off and lost the handle on the ball after absorbing a hard hit by Dannell Ellerbe. It was legal tackle, shoulder to helmet, and the officials did not call a penalty. Cribbs lay prone for several minutes before finally rising to his feet and walking off the field.
Flacco went 16 for 26 for 186 yards and a touchdown to stake the Ravens to 9-7 halftime lead.
After Cribbs' first-quarter fumble, the Ravens moved to the Cleveland 10 before Browns linebacker Craig Robertson picked off a pass by Flacco in the end zone. It was the first time in 126 attempts that Flacco threw an interception inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Flacco made amends on Baltimore's next series, going 4 for 4 and throwing an 18-yard touchdown pass to Smith for a 6-0 lead. Flacco went 4 for 4 on the 85-yard drive, hitting Tandon Doss for 39 yards on a third-and-7 and also connecting with Smith on a 34-yarder.
After a Cleveland punt, rookie Justin Tucker kicked a 45-yard field goal to make it 9-0.
Weeden then directed a brilliant 11-play, 94-yard march, connecting with Greg Little on a 43-yard completion before Richardson ran in from the 1.
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 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.
Copyright 2012 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.