Posted: Sunday December 19, 1999 07:22 PM
BALTIMORE (Ticker) -- The Baltimore Ravens are having a December to remember with Tony Banks at quarterback. The New Orleans Saints are having a season that they would like to forget.
The Ravens won their club-record seventh game and got back to the .500 mark with a strong defensive performance in a 31-8 pounding of the lifeless Saints.
Banks completed 24-of-36 passes for 298 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions for Baltimore. He threw two of those TD passes in the first half as the Ravens opened a 17-0 advantage.
Banks, who was the third-string quarterback at the start of the season, has thrown at least three TD passes in each of the last three games and has a career-high 16 on the season. He had 15 touchdowns with St. Louis in 1996.
Baltimore entered the month of December three games under the break-even mark. But the Ravens (7-7) have won three straight games this month and have a slim shot at capturing their first playoff berth since moving to Baltimore in 1996.
"I think we've raised the bar a little," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I really felt our defense was in control of the game. They are playing magnificently. We're trying to get to 9-7. The bottom line is we're focusing and playing like a team."
Since moving from Cleveland prior to the 1996 season, the Ravens have are 23-38-1.
It was another frustrating afternoon for the Saints (2-12), who suffered their fifth straight loss and have the second-worst record in the league, better only than Cleveland. During the losing streak, New Orleans has been outscored by a combined 180-69.
"I don't see that it was a lack of effort, maybe other people see that," said Saints coach Mike Ditka, who is rumored to be fired at the end of the season. "I think our guys are trying hard. We didn't do enough things effectively. It seems like we are spinning are wheels and going nowhere."
It was sloppy game with each team committing four turnovers.
The Ravens, who entered the game ranked fourth in total defense, relied on that unit to take the lead in the first quarter.
Veteran defensive back Rod Woodson intercepted a pass by Billy Joe Tolliver and returned it to the Saints 27. It was Woodson's sixth interception this season and 53rd career.
However, Baltimore could not go anywhere and had to settle for Matt Stover's 36-yard field goal. The Ravens did not have a first down in the opening quarter and gained only 23 yards in the period. New Orleans was not much better with one first down and 37 yards in the quarter.
The Ravens held the Saints to just 11 net yards rushing on 17 attempts and eight first downs. New Orleans finished with 248 total yards compared to 335 for Baltimore.
It was a different story in the second quarter. On their first possession, the Ravens went four plays in 59 yards to take a 10-0 lead 48 seconds into the period. Banks hit running back Priest Holmes with a 34-yard TD pass down the left sideline.
Banks executed a perfect drive to end the half, directing a 10-play, 82-yard march in 2:42 to that pushed the lead to 17-0 with 24 seconds before intermission. He had a 16-yard pass to Qadry Ismail and a 25-yard strike to Justin Armour on 3rd-and-14 that moved the ball to the Saints 10.
Banks capped the drive when he found Armour in the back of the end zone and finished the half 15-of-21 for 172 yards with an interception.
"We were able to settle down and our defense gave us a great opportunity like they've done all year," Banks said. "We did a good job of finishing today. We weren't balanced early in the year. Now things have found there way and everything is coming together."
"We have a chance to be 9-7 now," Armour said. "It's a lot more fun out there when you're winning. I know .500 is a big deal here, but to go over .500 is saying something."
Meanwhile, the Saints were self-destructing on offense and managed just 96 yards in the half as Tommy Barnhardt punted six times.
Neither team scored in the third quarter and the Ravens put away the game on the second play of the fourth quarter when Banks hit Ismail on a crossing pattern for a 47-yard TD and 24-0 advantage.
One week after catching six passes for a franchise-record 258 yards at Pittsburgh, Ismail finished with seven receptions for 115 yards.
The Saints finally got on the board with 10 1/2 minutes to play on Tolliver's 20-yard touchdown pass to Keith Poole. Tolliver, who hit tight end Cameron Cleeland with the conversion, set up the score with a 57-yard pass to Lawrence Dawsey.
Tolliver struggled throughout, completing 16-of-35 passes for 207 yards with three interceptions. His last interception was returned 24 yards for a touchdown by safety Corey Harris with 1:49 to go.
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