ATLANTA - An unexpected thriller of a season is quickly turning into a comedy of errors.
After putting the heat on Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, the Ravens froze at the most critical of times, allowing a major upset to slip through their fingers in a 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome yesterday.
The Ravens held Vick to a paltry 131 yards of total offense with an aggressive game plan, but the big story was their own stumbling and bumbling. The Ravens' collection of follies included: the inexplicable fumble by quarterback Jeff Blake backed against his own end zone, the dropped pass by receiver Ron Johnson on a fake punt and the strange defensive positioning of cornerback Alvin Porter that allowed the Falcons to convert a late fourth down and run out the clock.
It seemed like whenever the Ravens had victory in their sights, they always flinched.
"They did not physically execute at key times that put them on the down side of a three-point game," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They could have done any number of things that could have turned the tide, but they didn't."
Without three injured starters - linebacker Ray Lewis, quarterback Chris Redman and defensive end Michael McCrary - the Ravens (3-5) lost for the second straight week and fell two games back of the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.
The disturbing trend is the growing lack of discipline as the turnovers and penalties begin to pile up. The Ravens turned the ball over twice yesterday and committed seven penalties for 62 yards, which allowed the Falcons (5-3) to escape with their fourth straight win.
Even the Ravens couldn't help but laugh at themselves.
With the game tied at 3-3 early in the second quarter, Blake dropped back to the Ravens' 1-yard line in a collapsing pocket and cocked his arm. The ball slipped from his grasp before his arm went forward, and a free-for-fall for the fumble ensued.
Falcons linebacker Matt Stewart dove for the ball, but it continued to roll to the Ravens' 2, where Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden gambled. Instead of falling on the loose ball, he tried to pick it up and inadvertently kicked it toward the sideline. Atlanta defensive end Patrick Kerney finally corralled the fumble and ran it 4 yards for the touchdown.
"I can't help but laugh about it," a chuckling Ogden said. "Looking back on it, it's still funny. I'm still disappointed by the game, but for a lineman, you only get one shot at the ball every two or three years. I had to try.
"If we had been in the open field a little more, I might have just flopped on it. My left foot betrayed me right there. He wasn't my friend."
Blake's fifth turnover in two starts handed Atlanta a 10-3 lead 2 1/2 minutes into the second quarter and tainted a strong throwing performance from the 11-year veteran.
"I take full blame for that," said Blake, who finished 14 of 27 for 229 yards with an interception and a touchdown. "We gave them a free touchdown. That's seven points. Take that away, we win the football game."
The Ravens answered with a high-risk move that backfired.
On a fourth-and-two just inside Falcons territory, the Ravens attempted a fake punt, but the throw from punter Dave Zastudil - the team's emergency quarterback - sailed high and through the hands of rookie receiver Ron Johnson.
The Falcons jumped on another Ravens miscue. During the ensuing drive, Vick spun away from Ravens safety Ed Reed to complete a 25-yard pass to Brian Finneran at the 1. Running back T.J. Duckett finished off the drive with a short touchdown run, staking Atlanta to a 17-3 margin with 5:56 left in the first half.
"Dave threw a good ball and it slipped through my hands," Johnson said. "It's something that happens."
The Ravens rallied behind receiver Travis Taylor, who is suddenly looking like a first-round draft pick with Blake as quarterback.
After Atlanta's second touchdown, Taylor caught a 64-yard pass and capped the drive with a 7-yard touchdown reception. In the opening series of the second half, Taylor took a reverse right into a crowd and then improvised by going back to his left. His 39-yard gain set up fullback Alan Ricard's 19-yard run that tied the game at 17 early in the third quarter.
"The stats don't make up for the loss," said Taylor, who finished with a career-high 127 yards receiving.
In the end, the Ravens found themselves battling their mistakes as well as the officials.
Late in the third quarter, Ravens defensive end Tony Weaver chased down Vick, who lost the ball. Ravens defensive end Adalius Thomas came running over to the sideline raising the ball high, but the officials ruled Vick was down before fumbling.
The next play, Jay Feely kicked a 40-yarder to put the Falcons back ahead 20-17.
"I show you the ball and you [the officials] get together and conclude that it's their ball," Thomas said. "I think they missed the call."
When asked about the play, Billick said sarcastically: "You can't challenge. The officials are, as usual, right on and perfect in making the correct call. It's non-reviewable."
The Ravens' final collapse came with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, with Atlanta going for it on fourth-and-four. Originally supposed to look to his right, Vick noticed Porter lined up 6 yards off receiver Trevor Gaylor and decided to throw to his left.
Vick delivered a sinking pass that Gaylor cradled just above the turf for a 6-yard gain, allowing Atlanta to run out the final 1:46. Porter was only in the game because Chris McAlister sprained his ankle after making the mistake of fielding a punt at the Ravens' 3 early in the fourth quarter.
"I broke on it, but he threw it so low that he could only make the play," said Porter, who explained his positioning on zone coverage.
When asked if Porter should have lined up closer, Billick said: "If he's up close enough and they throw a fade for a touchdown, is he too far off?"
The Ravens finished the first half of the season with mounting errors and dwindling hope. The reprieve might come next Sunday, when they play host to the last-place Cincinnati Bengals.
"It's a tall task to think in terms of the playoffs," Billick said. "But you don't eliminate that until you're mathematically eliminated."
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