The same arm that had won the Ravens' previous two games proved to be their downfall last night.
Steve McNair's three interceptions were costly, as the Ravens fell to the Denver Broncos, 13-3, for their first loss of the season.
In a chilly rain at Invesco Field at Mile High, McNair was picked off in the end zone late in the first half and was intercepted twice late in the fourth quarter to end any hopes of a third straight game-winning comeback.
"When you play this game as long as I have, you can't expect to win ballgames with three interceptions," said McNair, who finished 20-for-34 for 165 yards and a passer rating of 34.6. "I didn't manage the game as well I should have. If it's anybody's fault, it's mine. I'll take the blame for this one."
It marked the fewest points scored by the Ravens since a 30-3 loss in Jacksonville last November. The Ravens (4-1) hold just a half game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.
A national television audience got its first glimpse of the Ravens' struggling offense, which drove past the Denver 34-yard line just twice last night. But those inside the Ravens' locker room have grown extremely frustrated over the lack of production from the running game and the passing attack.
"Our offense is not playing, plain and simple," receiver Derrick Mason said. "It was evident in Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4 and very evident in Game 5. It's very, very disappointing and whoever tries to sugarcoat it, they don't need to be in this locker room - coaches included. If you try to sugarcoat it, you might as well be playing somewhere else and coaching somewhere else. It's a problem and we have to fix it somehow, someway."
After Jason Elam's 44-yard field goal gave the Broncos their first lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Ravens responded by moving near midfield, where McNair capped the worst game of his short Ravens career.
Throwing the ball while scrambling to his left, McNair tried to hit receiver Mark Clayton, despite two Broncos around him, and was intercepted by Darrent Williams.
Eight plays after the interception, Denver quarterback Jake Plummer threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Rod Smith, who beat Chris McAlister in the corner of the end zone.
McNair's final pass was intercepted with 36 seconds left, sealing the 12th straight regular-season win at home for the Broncos (3-1) and ruining what had been a stellar effort by the Ravens' defense.
"This is a wake-up call for us," said McNair, who hadn't thrown more than two interceptions in a game since October 2004. "But it's not [pushing] the panic button. We've got opportunities to come back next week and play again."
Coach Brian Billick declined to assess McNair after the game.
"To not look at the film and see exactly what happened would not be a fair assessment," he said.
Beyond McNair's turnovers, the offense let the defense down early in the game, when the Ravens managed to score three points off two turnovers in the first quarter.
With Denver's offense struggling as much as the Ravens', the Broncos received their biggest boost in the second quarter from their special teams. A 33-yard punt return by Williams led to Elam's 43-yard field goal, tying the score at 3 with 4:54 left in the second quarter.
The Ravens responded with their best offensive drive of the game, which ended with the most frustrating play of the season.
After marching to the Denver 10, McNair attempted an alley-oop pass on third down, sending a high throw into the right corner of the end zone. But the underthrown pass intended for Clarence Moore was intercepted by Champ Bailey, keeping the score tied at halftime.
"Clarence is 6-5 and we thought we'd take advantage of it," McNair said. "As a quarterback, you throw it to your guy or no one at all."
It was a questionable decision because McNair not only challenged Bailey, the Broncos' top cornerback, but also threw to Moore, who has been inactive in three of five games this season.
"Bailey is an outstanding player," Billick said. "You have to be very conscious of that when going after him. That play was one of the options we had and it didn't turn out for us."
The Ravens handed Denver its first break of the second half, when rookie Sam Koch shanked a punt 10 yards.
Starting at their 36, the Broncos were able to get into field-goal range by converting two key third downs. Plummer gained 12 yards on a designed scramble for one first down and he hit Smith for another.
Elam's 44-yard field goal put the Broncos ahead for the first time with 8:03 left in the game, giving them a 6-3 lead.
"It's good for us, quite honestly," Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "How does a team react? Do we go in the tank? Do we figure out that we made some mistakes and move forward? This is a test of a championship team. Championship teams put this behind them instantly. Believe me, we're going to put it behind us."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun