In a season in which the Ravens have taken several shots to their pride, they might have received the knockout blow last night.
Fumbling and bumbling their way before a national television audience, the Ravens embarrassed themselves in a 38-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at rain-soaked Heinz Field.
After humbling losses at Cleveland and Buffalo, the Ravens bottomed out in almost every aspect.
It was the largest margin of defeat in the nine-year Brian Billick era. Steve McNair had the fewest yards passing in NFL history (63) by a quarterback that completed 13 passes. And the defense tied a team record with five touchdown passes allowed.
"I wouldn't begin to know how to characterize this," Billick said. "You have days like that. I won't try to justify it or try to explain it. You just can't do the things that we did."
It was a sobering defeat filled with three lost fumbles and two team records for futility - setting a mark for fewest total yards (104) and tying for fewest first downs (five) - all of which put a major dent in the Ravens' chances of repeating as AFC North champions.
The Ravens, who entered one game back of sharing the division lead, fell to 0-3 in the AFC North. Since the NFL went to eight divisions in 2002, no team has won a division after losing its first three games in it.
"If you don't think that it's embarrassing, you're not a competitor," McNair said. "This game was on national TV; it hurts."
Asked why the struggles occurred, McNair said: "We played against a good defense. That's how it happened. It's not the end of the world. It's not a time to panic. But there is a sense of urgency."
But the Ravens can't think about gaining control of the division when they can't even control the ball.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was beaten up by the Ravens last season, converted those fumbles into scores, throwing five touchdown passes in the first half.
The Ravens continually gave chances to the Steelers at a time when they couldn't afford to do so. For the first time in the Ravens' 184-game history, they played without both starting cornerbacks - Chris McAlister (knee injury) and Samari Rolle (undisclosed illness).
Roethlisberger was able to elude the Ravens' pass rush and rip apart the depleted secondary, completing 13 of 16 passes for 209 yards.
As he has done in the Ravens' five straight losses on national television, McNair was unable to muster a counterattack. With a pocket that often resembled a mosh pit, McNair was 13-for-22 for 63 yards and an interception in his first start since Oct. 7.
Asked to characterize McNair's play, Billick said, "I'll let you do that.
Asked whether McNair was still the starter, Billick said, "Yep, absolutely."
This represented a good measure of payback for the Steelers, who were outscored 58-7 in two losses to the Ravens last season.
The Ravens spent the 15-day layoff during the bye talking about regaining a sense of urgency and calling this "their playoff game." But the Ravens never seemed to show up.
Asked whether the players are still responding to Billick, wide receiver Derrick Mason said: "I think we do. Not responding means going out there and not competing. The coaches can't do anything about the turnovers. That's upon the players to go out and protect the ball. We just didn't do that as a whole. You just can't blame that on one guy."
The tone of game was set midway through the first quarter by the quarterbacks. When faced with pressure, McNair fumbled and Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass.
On the Ravens' opening drive, McNair tried to throw while being hit by linebacker James Harrison (who was cut by the Ravens in 2004), and the ball slipped out of his grasp. It marked McNair's fifth fumble in his five starts this season.
Three plays later, Roethlisberger shrugged defensive lineman Trevor Pryce off of him, rolled to his right and threw a 17-yard pass to a wide-open Heath Miller in the end zone.
About 5 1/2 minutes after McNair's turnover, Ed Reed took a crushing hit by Harrison on a punt return. Harrison's helmet dislodged the ball and sent it high into the air and into the arms of Steelers rookie Lawrence Timmons.
After two defensive penalties (pass interference on Corey Ivy and illegal contact by Ray Lewis), Roethlisberger threaded a 15-yard touchdown pass between Reed and David Pittman to put Pittsburgh ahead 14-0.
On the Ravens' next series, running back Willis McGahee fumbled for the second time this season, getting stripped by safety Troy Polamalu. Three plays later, Roethlisberger eluded Terrell Suggs diving at his feet and heaved a 30-yard touchdown pass to Nate Washington, who got 10 yards behind safety Dawan Landry.
Three fumbles turned into three Roethlisberger touchdown passes and a 21-0 lead 48 seconds into the second quarter.
Roethlisberger continued to pile on the touchdowns in the second quarter, picking on Derrick Martin (who was making his first start) for a 35-yard pass to Holmes and a 7-yarder to Washington.
That staked the Steelers to a 35-0 lead in the second quarter against a Ravens team that hadn't allowed more than 27 points in a game all season.
The Ravens avoided getting shut out in the first half when Musa Smith returned a kickoff 52 yards and McGahee ran 33 yards for a touchdown. But any fleeting hope of a turnaround was squashed when the half ended with McNair getting sacked and Adam Terry getting called for false start.
It might be too late for the Ravens to turn around their season. Sitting with a 4-4 record at the midway point of the season, the Ravens still have five remaining games against teams that either hold or share the lead in a division.
"[The players are] going to be disappointed and they're going to embarrassed," Billick said. "But this team has a lot of faith in itself. And they'll get ready for the next opponent."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun