CINCINNATI // Kyle Boller's grip on being the Ravens' quarterback of the future apparently isn't as slippery as the one he had on the football yesterday.
Stumbling and fumbling for nearly three quarters, Boller repeatedly bungled through the Ravens' 42-29 loss to the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals before a rain-soaked crowd of 65,680 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Three turnovers by Boller - two interceptions and a fumble - led to 17 points, paving the way for the Bengals to jump to a 34-0 lead by the third quarter. The Ravens (3-8) made their ninth straight road loss respectable with a desperate rally in the end, but they never cut the lead under 13 points.
The surprise of the Ravens' late offensive outburst - finally eclipsing 20 points for the first time this season - was only trumped by coach Brian Billick's praise for Boller after the game.
"Like the team, you can't make mistakes like that in the first half, but it was the way [Boller] responded," Billick said. "He grew individually, and we grew as a team. It's hard to understand that given the fact that we lost and looked so bad to start. But where we came from that point, I'm encouraged."
By the time the Bengals (8-3) moved out to a 34-0 bulge - they converted a Boller fumble into a field goal - he was a miserable 4-for-15 for 37 yards and two interceptions.
In the final 21 minutes, Boller was 14-for-17 for 174 yards and three touchdowns.
"I need to play a lot better in the first half," Boller said. "I can't play the way I did in order for this team to win. Yeah, we did some great things in the second half, and I'm going to use that to pull from. But the first half, I can't play like that."
Boller's mistakes were magnified in a game in which Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer continued to show the promise the Ravens have long envisioned for their own young quarterback.
Palmer, who was taken 18 picks before Boller in the 2003 draft, completed 22 of 30 passes for 302 yards. Always finding the open receiver, he delivered touchdown throws of 54, 30 and 27 yards.
The challenge of dissecting the NFL's second-ranked defense was made easier because the Ravens were missing four starters.
"Those guys are such integral parts of our defense," end Tony Weaver said. "We had to abandon a lot of calls. We need some help. We need to get guys back."
In his first series replacing McAlister (who had been lit up by T.J. Houshmandzadeh), Dale Carter watched receiver Chad Johnson blow past him and make a 54-yard touchdown grab.
To celebrate the Bengals' 17-0 lead in the second quarter, Johnson uprooted an end-zone pylon and putted the football.
"They played better football than we did today," Carter said. "I can't sugar-coat it."
If there was a sign on how the game would unfold, it came at the end of the opening drive.
After the Ravens had marched to the Cincinnati 34-yard line, receiver Derrick Mason was running wide-open down the middle of the field because a Bengals defender had fallen. But Boller overthrew him in the end zone.
"I don't have a crystal ball, [so] I can't tell you what would have happened," Boller said. "Obviously, going up 7-0 would have helped out a lot. That's a throw I'm going to see in my sleep over and over."
The nightmare continued to get worse for Boller.
Over the next six possessions, he fumbled three times (only one was recovered by the Bengals), had three passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage and even slipped once when trying to plant his back foot deep in his own territory.
His first interception was a poorly thrown deep pass down the sideline to receiver Mark Clayton, and his second one went directly to safety Ifeanyi Ohalete, whom Boller acknowledged not seeing.
Slouched on the bench before halftime, Boller had a hollow look in his eyes.
"It was a very hard first half," Boller said. "I take a lot of that on myself. My thing is I need to go out there and execute."
Helped by a couple of Cincinnati turnovers, the Ravens scored three touchdowns in a 4-minute, 49-second span. Jamal Lewis, who recorded his first 100-yard game, ran into the end zone from 5 yards out to bring the Ravens to within 34-21 with 11:58 left in the game.
But the Bengals sealed the first season sweep of the Ravens in nine years by answering with a nine-play, 61-yard drive that was capped by Rudi Johnson's 3-yard touchdown.
The 42 points were the most allowed by a Ravens defense since 1998.
"We played our best football for about 15 minutes and it showed," linebacker Adalius Thomas said.
During the Ravens' failed comeback, Boller connected with tight end Todd Heap for touchdowns of 34 and 17 yards and hit Mason for a 28-yard score.
The lowest-scoring team in the NFL, the Ravens produced four touchdowns in two quarters after reaching the end zone eight times in their first 10 games.
"I think I settled down a little bit," Boller said. "I kind of went out there and just played the game. I didn't worry about a lot. We're down 34-0, so what is there to worry about? That's how I need to play all the time, to be in that state of mind."
It marked the Ravens' fifth loss in six games, dropping them to 3-8 for the first time since 1996, their inaugural season in Baltimore.
Nevertheless, Billick couldn't hide his admiration for how his last-place team did not quit.
"I could not ask more than the way our guys responded to the circumstances," Billick said. "It was a loss, make no mistake - are we clear on that? I'm not making excuses. It's a loss, and a loss in the NFL costs you.
"I'm talking about a team emotionally that's fighting through its circumstances and I couldn't be prouder about what they did."
The 42 points scored by Cincinnati yesterday marked the sixth time in team history that the Ravens have allowed 40 or more points (all were losses except the Seattle game in 2003):
Pts., Opponent, Date
46 vs. New England 10/6/96
45 at Denver 10/20/96
45 vs. Jacksonville 11/1/98
42 vs. Pittsburgh 10/5/97
42 at Cincinnati 11/27/05
41 vs. Seattle 11/23/03