OAKLAND, Calif. - A week after distinguishing themselves as contenders, the Ravens looked more like pretenders.
A week after seizing control of their playoff destiny, they gave it away as easily as another fumble.
Playing against the self-proclaimed "dumbest team in America," the Ravens left dumbfounded in a 20-12 loss to the once-crumbling Oakland Raiders yesterday.
Like most of the Raiders' fan base at Network Associates Coliseum, the Ravens failed to show up, turning the ball over three times while turning over control of the division to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Although they both own 8-6 records, the Bengals can win the AFC North by winning their next two games. Even if the Ravens win at Cleveland and against Pittsburgh, they would still lose the division title based on the league's fifth tiebreaker (beaten opponents' winning percentage).
"In my opinion, losing this game was probably the worst thing that could have happened to us this season," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "I hate to lose to anybody. And to lose to a 3-10 team is ridiculous to tell you the truth.
"Now, there's nothing we can do but win out. And that's not going to guarantee that anything is going to happen. We have to hope Cincinnati loses."
On a day when they were supposed to move one step closer to January and a postseason they have not visited since 2001, the Ravens watched their playoff bandwagon get sideswiped by the unlikeliest of suspects.
These are the same Raiders who had more conflicts within the team - their coach Bill Callahan recently said, "We've got to be the dumbest team in America in terms of playing the game" - than victories this season.
The same Raiders who, up until yesterday, had lost eight of their past nine games.
The same Raiders who entered yesterday with the NFL's 24th-ranked offense and 29th-ranked defense.
Into the book of shameful defeats in Ravens franchise history goes a game that wipes out a season's worth of momentum. A three-game winning streak - which peaked with last week's victory over the Bengals - came crashing down into San Francisco Bay yesterday.
"As much of a high we felt last week, we feel this low," guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "We have to respect each team as an NFL team. That's what I took from today. We didn't come prepared to finish off an opponent the way we should have, and they did."
Two turnovers - a first-quarter interception and a fourth-quarter fumble by quarterback Anthony Wright - were converted into 10 points by the Raiders.
"You don't like to ever lose," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "But when you have control of what's going on and give it away, it kind of frustrates you. That team played good today, but we're better than them. That's the frustrating part about it."
The Ravens may be better, but yesterday, they were sloppier, too.
Trailing 17-12 early in the fourth quarter, the Ravens moved to Oakland's 27-yard line, where a missed assignment continued a day of blindsiding hits.
Wright was popped by linebacker Napoleon Harris just as he was trying to hand off to Jamal Lewis. Harris, who came off the right edge unblocked, forced the ball loose from Wright's extended arm.
The Raiders marched 63 yards on 10 plays on a drive capped by Sebastian Janikowski's 23-yard field goal, putting Oakland ahead 20-12 with 5:58 left. After that, the Ravens never crossed midfield in their final two series, which were ended by a Travis Taylor drop and a desperation throw.
"It was tough out there," Wright said. "I really don't understand myself."
Likewise, many league observers are trying to understand Wright.
After a couple of strong starts, he has put together back-to-back lackluster ones. He finished yesterday 12-for-27 passing for 193 yards, with a touchdown and an interception.
His favorite target, Marcus Robinson, did not have a reception after going three straight weeks with a touchdown.
Kyle Boller, the starter for the first nine games of the season, is expected to be healthy enough from leg surgery to play Sunday at Cleveland. But switching quarterbacks will not be a consideration this week.
"[Wright is] the starter next week," coach Brian Billick. "I'm glad I don't play for any of you [media] because the first time there's a bump in the road, you just p--- down your leg."
Wright's teammates continued to back him.
"He's going to come back and do the same things Anthony has always done," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "When Anthony was putting up 44 points in a game, everybody wanted to hop on his bandwagon. Hop off it. We like when you hop off it. We just like when we have confidence in Anthony. We're all right. Trust me."
Put some of the blame on Wright, whose second pass of the game - which featured receiver Frank Sanders stumbling - was overthrown and intercepted by Oakland cornerback Phillip Buchanon. It put the Raiders on the 1-yard line and 55 seconds into the game the Ravens were behind 7-0.
Put part of the blame on the Ravens' usually sound kickoff coverage team, which surrendered a 71-yard return to Doug Gabriel. The Ravens' defense didn't yield a yard, and Oakland settled for a 37-yard field goal.
Despite outgaining the Raiders 61-1 midway through the first quarter, the Ravens trailed 10-3 because of the lapses. By the end of the game, the Ravens had a 319-265 edge in total offense and Jamal Lewis had more yards rushing (125) than the entire Raiders team.
"Losses like this," linebacker Peter Boulware said, "you can't explain them."
Some fault even has to be placed on the defense, which had some untimely lapses in coverage.
A 21-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice in front of safety Will Demps gave Oakland a 17-6 halftime lead. Then, the Ravens' defense allowed two third-down conversions in the fourth quarter after giving up just three in the first three quarters, allowing the Raiders to use up the clock.
"Sometimes you have to give it to them because they made the play when they had to," Demps said.
When the Ravens made a play, they felt that it was sometimes taken away.
After tight end Todd Heap's 13-yard touchdown catch, the Ravens went for a two-point conversion. A draw by Chester Taylor, who appeared to stretch the ball onto the goal line, was not ruled a touchdown.
The Ravens challenged, but the officials said they could not clearly see when Taylor's knee touched the ground. As a result, the Ravens were behind 17-12 instead of 17-14 and had to go for a touchdown at the end.
"I thought he was in," Billick said. "Instant replay again. A lot of money spent on a system that comes away inconclusive."
When asked if there was any embarrassment felt from this loss - which included eight penalties - Heap said, "You got to feel that a little bit. We were supposed to win this game. You have to win those games to play at a championship level. We just put a little more pressure on these next two games."
The next game is at Cleveland, and the road has been unkind to the Ravens.
During their four-game losing streak on the road, the Ravens have turned the ball over 16 times. Those mistakes have been converted into 53 points.
"Just keep writing the same story," Heap said.
Despite the setback, the Ravens said they believe they have not written themselves out of the playoff picture.
"I think our chances are good," Boulware said. "In my mind, it's really not about Cleveland or Pittsburgh. It's about us. It's about how you prepare and play. When we play our style of ball, we're tough to beat."
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