CHARLOTTE, N.C.—With thoughts of his first game-winning drive in his head, Ravens quarterback Chris Redman locked onto a wide-open Brandon Stokley running across the middle and started to cock his arm to rifle a pass that could sway the momentum.
But before Redman could plant his right foot, running back Jamal Lewis had missed a block on Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, who barreled down on Redman to deflect the pass. The batted throw landed in the arms of Carolina linebacker Dan Morgan, and the Panthers ran out the final 79 seconds of the game.These little mistakes by the Ravens snowballed into a big, embarrassing, 10-7, season-opening loss to the Carolina Panthers yesterday before a half-empty Ericsson Stadium. Too often the Ravens had a chance to tilt the game in their favor and flopped.
The Ravens' rebuilding project officially hit bottom as they fell to a Carolina team that hadn't won in 364 days.
"There's a lot of tough lessons to learn out there," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
The finishing blow to the Ravens can be blamed on right tackle Edwin Mulitalo.
Trailing by a field goal with 1:27 left in the game, the Ravens stood at their own 47-yard line and wanted to exploit an all-out blitz by hitting Stokley over the middle to convert a third-and-four. But Mulitalo was getting beat inside, and Lewis moved in position to help but moved out of position to stop an outside rush by Peppers.
Taking a seven-step drop, Redman didn't see Peppers coming unblocked until the last moment and tried to rush the throw.
"That was my fault," Mulitalo said. "That was probably the only mistake I made the whole game. But I'm a firm believer that it's when you make your mistakes and not how many mistakes you make."
Still, the countless mistakes by the NFL's youngest team sealed the Ravens' first season-opening loss since 1999.
Carolina's only touchdown drive was jump-started by a roughing the passer penalty on Ravens linebacker Ed Hartwell and a blown coverage by cornerback Chris McAlister on a flea flicker. Then, Matt Stover missed a game-tying 47-yard field-goal attempt in the third quarter that should have been 5 yards closer if not for Stokley's false start two plays before.
But the errors that took their toll were the 10 pounding hits on Redman and the 145 yards rushing given up by a blocked-out defense.
"Just because we lost, it doesn't mean the season is over," left tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "This definitely puts us in a hole. No disrespect to Carolina because they beat us, but Tampa is a better team than them. We have to pick up our play somewhere, if we want to beat Tampa next week."
Said inside linebacker Ray Lewis: "This is a 16-week season. After one week, you don't pack your bags up and get ready for Christmas. You keep fighting."
After a shaky first series, Redman led the Ravens to their first touchdown by marching them 80 yards. He hit Stokley on a 22-yard pass on the left sideline and then called an audible before connecting with Travis Taylor for a 36-yarder.
Redman, who was 6-for-6 for 69 yards in the drive, finished it off with an 8-yard toss to Ron Johnson in the back of the end zone that was set up by a play-action fake to Jamal Lewis. The score was challenged by Carolina, but the referees upheld the ruling after seeing Johnson get his right foot in by inches.
"We did a good job of selling the run," Redman said. "Ron did a good job finding a hole. The linebacker was facing the other way, so I put it right behind his head."
The Panthers answered with an 80-yard drive of their own, culminating in a 20-yard pass to Wesley Walls. The touchdown pass that got between safeties Anthony Mitchell and Ed Reed tied the game at 7 with 36 seconds left in the first quarter.
Carolina pushed the lead to 10-7 with 9:40 remaining in the first half, when John Kasay hit a 27-yard field goal. Panthers running back Nick Goings sustained that drive, taking a pitch right to convert a third-and-eight. Carolina cleared the path by getting a blocker to shield Ray Lewis, a key to the Panthers' successful running game.
"I'm not invincible," Lewis said.
The Ravens had an opportunity to tie the game late in the third quarter when they moved the ball to the Carolina 24-yard line. But on a third-and-two, Stokley was called for a false start, changing a 42-yard field goal to a 47-yard attempt.
Stover missed wide left.
"It was loud and I was trying to get a jump on the snap count," Stokley said. "I just leaned forward too much and that cost us. That's a mistake that I can't make."
The long-distance kick became trickier with a wind blowing in and pushing the ball to the left. Stover, the fourth most accurate kicker in NFL history, aimed a foot inside the right upright but the ball still sailed too far left.
"We're going to have a shot in almost all the games," Stover said. "When we do, we have to hit those field goals. As a kicker, I know why this team has me here is to hit those kicks. I have to do a better job."
The Ravens nearly pulled out the victory by capitalizing on a Carolina mistake. Instead of pinning the Ravens deep inside their own territory, the Panthers went for a 50-yard field-goal attempt that also veered wide left.
In their best field position of the fourth quarter, the Ravens took over at their 41 and felt they had a rhythm with their two-minute offense. Three plays later, they were watching the final seconds tick off and the Panthers erupt in celebration.
"We were going to do it," said Redman, who finished 20 of 34 for 218 yards in his first NFL start. "I guarantee you we were going to get it in the end zone. We had that look in our eye that we were going to drive right down there. They caught us in a blitz. It was a great call for a great play. But I think if we get the ball off, it would have been a big play."
Instead, the Ravens are dealing with a game in which they beat themselves.
"The little things are what lose football games," Stokley said. "We found that out today."