CLEVELAND -- The game had no business being close, and suddenly grew tight. Baltimore's lead had slipped on a slick field.
That's when Ray Rice ran wild.
Rice broke loose for a 67-yard run in the third quarter on the way to a career-high 204 yards as the Ravens kept pace with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North by running roughshod over the Cleveland Browns 24-10 on Sunday.
"It was critical," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Rice's career-best scamper. "That was the key to the game, to come back and answer like that. It was a huge answer for us."
Baltimore racked up 290 yards rushing, and was in such control that quarterback Joe Flacco took a knee three times to run out the final two minutes.
"They just flat out whupped us up front," Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "They embarrassed us. It was a slap in the face."
With Flacco's passes affected by gusty winds that pushed two Billy Cundiff field-goal attempts wide, the Ravens turned to Rice, who followed his blockers and posted the third-highest rushing total in franchise history.
"I give it all to the offensive line," Rice said. "I get the glory because I get the yards. But the line, what they do, that's how things happen."
Cleveland lost for the fifth time in six games, and the banged-up Browns have just three days to prepare for the Steelers, the division's other resident heavy.
Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs believes Cleveland has a long way to go to catch the North's leaders.
"It's a big gap," he said.
Picking up huge chunks of yardage with almost every carry, the Ravens should have been up by three scores in the third quarter. But when Phil Dawson kicked a 21-yard field goal following a Baltimore turnover, the Browns were within 10-3.
Rice then broke their backs.
Taking the handoff from Flacco at his own 27, Rice swept left, found a seam and cut back to the middle of the field. He was able to pull away from a bunch of pursuing Browns near midfield, getting a big block from wide receiver Anquan Boldin before being pushed out of bounds at Cleveland's 5.
Williams then plowed in from the 1 to put the Ravens ahead 17-3.
For the third straight week, the Ravens were without Ray Lewis, their motivational leader and star linebacker who has been slowed by a nagging toe injury. But the 5-foot-8, 212-pound Rice, who has become one of the NFL's best all-around backs, carried the load and made sure Baltimore didn't miss a beat.
"Getting this win without No. 52 is a blessing," Rice said of Lewis, who prowled the sideline yelling encouragement at his teammates and taunting the Browns. "When I came off to the sideline, he was coaching me as well. He said he was a running back in high school and was giving tips."
The Ravens hadn't played since Thanksgiving and were out of sync at times. However, they were finally able to beat a weaker opponent following a quality win. Three times this season, they had stubbed their toe on the road following victories. But despite two botched field goals, and a costly fumble, the Ravens pushed toward the playoffs.
The Browns have major problems.
Quarterback Colt McCoy finished 17 of 35 for 192 yards and a TD. But he fell to 0-7 in his career against division opponents, and did little to convince team management that he should be their QB of the future. He's got four games left this season to make a favorable impression, assuming he's healthy enough to play.
McCoy injured his right knee early, came back after missing one play and took several hard shots in the second half.
After throwing a short pass in the first quarter, McCoy was hit by Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones. At first, McCoy, whose white No. 12 jersey was smeared with grass stains and dirt, appeared to be seriously injured. Backup Seneca Wallace came in for one play, but McCoy returned the next time Cleveland got the ball.
"It think it's going to be all right," said McCoy, who didn't know if he'll have an MRI.
His teammates didn't help, dropping at least four passes. With the Browns down 10-0, tight end Evan Moore let a sure TD slip through his hands in the end zone.
"Critical mistakes at critical times," McCoy said.
Browns running back Peyton Hillis also sustained an unspecified leg injury. The Browns don't believe it's related to the strained hamstring that sidelined him for five straight games.
Cundiff's misses from 34 and 41 yards prevented the Ravens from having a bigger halftime lead.
Following Cundiff's second miss to the right, Cleveland had a chance to run out the clock and escape to the locker room trailing just 7-0. But McCoy was intercepted by Jimmy Smith, who returned it to the Browns 15. The Ravens, who inexplicably stopped giving the ball to Rice in the final minutes of the first half, had to settle for Cundiff's 21-yard field goal with 13 seconds left.
Flacco improved to 7-0 against the Browns. ... Rice has four of his 12 100-yard games this season. .... Boldin had two catches, giving him 700 for his career. ... Browns RB Montario Hardesty was active after missing four straight games with a calf injury but was in for only three plays. .... Three of the Ravens' top four rushing performances have come against the Browns.