On a night when the Ravens could have had the AFC North clinched, they flinched.
Committing mistakes in all three phases - offense, defense and special teams - the Ravens flopped before a national television audience, falling to the Cincinnati Bengals, 13-7, at Paul Brown Stadium last night.
The Ravens' secondary got fooled on a flea flicker. The offense tripped inside the red zone. And a bad snap ruined what seemed to be an automatic 29-yard field goal.
By the time the downpour came in the second half, the Ravens' party had already been rained out.
The Ravens' first loss since Oct. 15 foiled their chance to become the first team in the NFL to secure a playoff spot and tightened what had been a nonexistent race in the AFC North. The Ravens (9-3) lead the Bengals (7-5) by two games with four weeks remaining.
"It's always disappointing when you miss an opportunity," coach Brian Billick said. "Fortunately, we're in a position that we can control that going forward. We don't have to rely on anybody else. Nothing else has to happen except that we have to play good football, and I think we're capable of that."
The Bengals were excited about their third straight win.
"It's huge," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "We're rolling now. Hopefully we'll wind up getting a spot in the playoffs."
The Ravens' hopes of clinching the second division title in team history were essentially dashed in the third quarter by - of all Bengals - T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the receiver who said Cincinnati had "better players" after their loss to the Ravens in Baltimore on Nov. 5.
With the Bengals catching safety Ed Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister off guard with a flea-flicker, Houshmandzadeh ran uncovered down the field and caught a 40-yard touchdown. The biggest play allowed by the Ravens last night staked Cincinnati to a 13-0 lead early in the third quarter.
"It's really too hard to explain at this time," McAlister said.
That lapse ruined a respectable effort by the secondary, which limited Palmer to 74 yards passing in the second half.
The Ravens did admit the trick play was not expected.
"Unbelievable," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "Who has a expletive flea-flicker in their playbook?"
While the Bengals were held to less than 30 points for the first time in four games, the Ravens' offense couldn't capitalize.
Quarterback Steve McNair wasn't sharp, completing 26 of 43 passes for 227 yards. He could have been intercepted four times if rookie cornerback Johnathan Joseph hadn't dropped the ball.
Running back Jamal Lewis gained 61 yards on 17 carries, the first time in six games that he didn't crack 100 yards at Paul Brown Stadium.
As a result, a Ravens team that had averaged 27.8 points with Billick as offensive coordinator needed a desperation touchdown pass in the final 61 seconds to avoid being shut out.
"It's my responsibility to get that rhythm going for them," Billick said. "We did some things but we just couldn't sustain anything."
The Ravens' most memorable stumbles came in their two trips in the red zone.
Trailing 6-0 in the final minute of the first half, McNair connected with tight end Todd Heap for a 9-yard pass to move the Ravens to the Cincinnati 11-yard line. With no timeouts and 12 seconds remaining, McNair decided to spike the ball on third down - which meant settling for a field goal - instead of attempting a pass to the end zone.
"At that point, all you can do is an end-zone shot," Billick said. "To put a quarterback in that position - to force the ball, make the call at the line - the clock had gone down enough where it was prudent to go ahead and kill the clock and get the field-goal team out there."
Said McNair: "We wanted to have a little momentum going into halftime. You could look at it both ways. Could we have run a play? We just didn't want to take any chance of turning the ball over."
In a turn of events that typified the Ravens' troubling outing, kicker Matt Stover hit a 29-yard field goal amid whistles as Cincinnati had called a timeout to force the Ravens to try again. On the second attempt, Stover missed wide left after a low snap by Matt Katula.
"I didn't execute," Katula said. "I didn't give it a chance. I would love to make it perfect every time."
Stover, who had made 23 straight inside 40 yards, said: "I've got to make it."
The Ravens didn't return to the red zone until the fourth quarter, when they trailed 13-0. On the Ravens' first play inside the 20-yard line, center Mike Flynn was called for holding, moving them back 10 yards.
The drive ended when Cincinnati cornerback Tory James broke up a fourth-down pass to Mark Clayton on a slant at the Bengals' 8.
"We made too many penalties," McNair said of the Ravens, who were penalized nine times for 64 yards. "You can't win ballgames like that. We made too many mistakes to win this ballgame."
Heap added: "Give the Bengals some credit. A lot of things went their way tonight. We just never got in the groove."
The Ravens did manage to make it close at the end, when McNair heaved a 36-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason with 1:01 left in the game. Down 13-7, the Ravens had their onside kick recovered by Cincinnati, ending their five-game winning streak.
Because their next game isn't until Dec. 10 at Kansas City, the Ravens will use the time to regroup.
Not only did they lose return specialist B.J. Sams (broken leg) for the season, the Ravens also lost their grip on the No. 2 seed (and a first-round bye) to San Diego.
"We still control whether or not we win the division," Pryce said. "We don't have to wait for anybody to lose. The Bengals do have Indy and Denver back-to-back on the road. Yeah, good luck."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun