Purple pain

Ravens fans show their frustration during the fourth quarter of a 21-7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. (Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / November 11, 2007)

In many ways, the Ravens' troubling 21-7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday was a replay of everything that has gone wrong this season, from poor quarterback play to fumbles to ineptness in the red zone.

The difference yesterday: This could have marked the end of the Ravens' season, as well as Steve McNair's run as a starting quarterback.

Against a Bengals defense that had given up 30.5 points a game - tied for worst in the NFL - McNair committed three of the Ravens' six turnovers (two fumbles and one interception) and failed to lead a scoring drive, all of which dropped the Ravens to 4-5 this season (0-4 in the AFC North) and led an M&T Bank crowd of 71,130 to boo vigorously.

Last week, an emotional McNair bristled at criticism that he couldn't play anymore. Yesterday, a subdued McNair seemed resigned to the fact that he could lose his job to backup Kyle Boller.

"Right now, the last two games, my turnovers have been killing this football team," McNair said. "If [the coaches] decide to go with Kyle, that's fine [and] I'm backing him up. I probably would agree with them."

After the Ravens' third straight loss and their first at home in nine games, coach Brian Billick didn't back McNair as strongly as he had done all season. A change could be announced as early as today.

Asked whether McNair was still "his guy," Billick said, "As of right now, yeah. Obviously, we'll make all our judgments going forward."

A wounded Ravens defense did an admirable job to keep it close against the last-place Bengals (3-6). The Ravens didn't allow a touchdown, even though both starting cornerbacks were inactive - Chris McAlister has a knee strain and Samari Rolle has an undisclosed illness - and another cornerback, Corey Ivy, left with a concussion on the second defensive series.

But McNair dropped the ball ... several times, in fact.

His interception in the end zone - the Bengals made a good play on a lob to tight end Todd Heap - ended the Ravens' best chance of scoring in the first half.

His fumble in the third quarter - the ball was swatted away by safety Chinedum Ndukwe chasing from behind - led to a field goal.

And his fumble in the fourth quarter - McNair lost the grip on the ball simply winding up to throw - led to another field goal, which gave the Bengals a 21-0 lead.

Since returning from groin and back injuries, McNair has passed for a total of 191 yards in two starts, throwing two interceptions and fumbling three times. This is a dramatic fall for a quarterback who was the NFL's co-Most Valuable Player four years ago.

"This is probably the lowest point in my career," McNair said . "What do I need to do about it? I don't know. I'm trying to play hard to help this team, but it's just not there."

McNair finished 17-for-26 for 128 yards and one interception before being pulled with 7:33 left in the fourth quarter.

Boller, who received cheers when he entered the game, was 6-for-8 for 89 yards in two drives, throwing an interception in the end zone and setting up the Ravens' only touchdown with a 47-yard completion to Mark Clayton. Willis McGahee scored from 1 yard out on the next play with 1:56 left.

If the Ravens were going to make a quarterback change, it likely would have to occur this week. That would give Boller a chance to play the Cleveland Browns at home before facing a tough three-game stretch against the San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.

But many players continued to voice their support for McNair, who has led the Ravens to one touchdown in his past 35 drives.

"He's going to find a way to get through this and pull himself out of this," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "As an offense, we have to help him. Right now, the verdict is out with the fans. They want to crucify him, point-blank. As a team, we're going to stand behind him and continue to fight for him."

Said left guard Jason Brown: "We have a great quarterback; he's still a great quarterback. He will continue to be a moving force in this league."

Yet it's unlikely to think the Ravens will become a force in the playoff race anytime soon. They have lost five games in the AFC, which would hurt their chances as far as tiebreakers, and they have never reached the postseason when they have had a losing record after nine games.

Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said the Ravens are "close" to hitting rock bottom.

"If you would have come to me when we reported to training camp and said, 'You guys are going to be 0-4 in the division,' I would have bet the house that we wouldn't be," Suggs said. "But you know, it's gut-check time. We're going to see who the real men are."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com