End zone again out of bounds

This is what October has come to for the Ravens:

On the 1-yard line, quarterback Tony Banks produced a fumble when he should have had a touchdown.

On the 9-yard line, Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair produced a touchdown when he should have been sacked.

There were no reprieves for the Ravens at PSINet Stadium yesterday in an excruciating, 14-6 loss to the Titans before a record crowd of 69,200.

Not in the red zone. Not in the replay challenge system. Not in sheer dumb luck.

Ravens coach Brian Billick, shut out of the end zone since Sept. 24, finally went to his bench for veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer, and came away with a replay headache.

In three fourth-quarter possessions, Dilfer delivered a punt, an interception and a controversy when his tantalizing fourth-down pass to Qadry Ismail looked, upon further review, reasonably close to a 33-yard touchdown.

But like every other critical play near the goal line yesterday, the Ravens lost the replay challenge.

"It wasn't inconclusive," Ismail said insistently. "Both feet were in, and the momentum of the defender ... if he had not pushed me, I would've been in. That's my story. I'm sticking by it."

The Ravens' story has gone from bad to worse. At 5-3, they're a tenuous second in the AFC Central race, a half-game ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who come to PSINet next week, and 1 1/2 games behind the Titans.

Worse? The Ravens' offense is a mess. For the fourth consecutive game, it failed to score a touchdown. The grim count now is 16 quarters, 49 possessions and 246 minutes, 39 seconds of clock time.

Banks hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in 17 quarters, and may not anytime soon if Billick decides Dilfer gives the Ravens a better chance to beat the Steelers.

Banks was pulled after throwing three interceptions in four third-quarter possessions. Two went to middle linebacker Randall Godfrey. One, Godfrey returned for a 24-yard touchdown.

When Banks missed wide receiver Travis Taylor in the end zone - but found Titans cornerback Dainon Sidney instead - Billick had seen enough.

"I just thought it was the right time to do it," Billick said. "I didn't think the things that happened to him in the first half warranted him being pulled out at that time."

Despite protecting Banks through the drought, Billick now has a full-scale quarterback controversy on his hands. He wouldn't announce next week's starter, and may not until kickoff.

The decision, he said, will be based on "where we are as a team, who can get the job done against the opponent we're playing. There are a lot of factors involved."

Banks had his moments, however. He completed 17 of 32 passes for 229 yards - his highest yardage total in six weeks. He completed six passes for 20 yards or more.

But on one of the game's biggest plays, he mishandled the snap from backup center Mike Flynn, playing for injured Jeff Mitchell, with the Ravens threatening at the Tennessee 1 in the first quarter.

From first-and-goal at the 3, two runs put the Ravens at the 1. Banks came away from center without the ball, recovered the fumble at the 3, and the Ravens settled for a 21-yard field goal by Matt Stover.

"Me and Mike didn't get the snap," Banks said. "That's something we've got to work on."

"Maybe I didn't bring it up too fast," said Flynn. "It's hard to say."

The Ravens drove 77 yards on their next possession, leading to a 38-yard field goal from Stover, who has scored the team's last 40 points. The psychological impact of failing to reach the end zone is growing.

"It's like a hex on us at the goal line now," said right tackle Harry Swayne, who battled Tennessee's Jevon Kearse to a standstill. "It's like spirits come down to spook on us. They say, 'Not today.'

"It's almost like it's unbelievable. We know we can get down there. When we get down there, it's like, 'What could it be now to keep us out?'

"Most of the time, it's us."

The Ravens won the battle of statistics, but lost the war of attrition to a team that started the game without its best cornerback (Samari Rolle) and one of its top receivers (Carl Pickens). The Titans also lost running back Eddie George to a sprained medial collateral knee ligament after one play.

But Tennessee still had the magic of McNair, who turned in a devilish play at the end of the first half to capture a 7-6 lead.

The Titans got their opportunity after a 29-yard punt return by Derrick Mason to the Baltimore 38. In four plays, they were at the 9-yard line, facing third-and-five.

Then, under pressure, McNair pirouetted out of the grasp of defensive end Rob Burnett and threw across his body to Rodney Thomas, George's replacement. Thomas bolted into the end zone, and the Titans never relinquished the lead.

Not even a miraculous return by defensive tackle Tony Siragusa was enough on this day. Siragusa suffered a bruised spinal cord in the first quarter, and had to be immobilized and carried off the field. But after X-rays and a magnetic resonance imaging exam at the nearby Maryland Shock Trauma Center, he was cleared to return. He was on the field for McNair's touchdown pass and played extensively in the second half.

"For him to come back like that shows such guts and character," said Ismail.

Ismail's last-gasp attempt at Dilfer's long pass in the final two minutes served as the punctuation mark on a day of utter frustration. After he and cornerback Michael Booker went up for the ball, Ismail got his left foot down in bounds and appeared to drag his right foot on the end line.

"To me, if the second foot being in was at all debatable, then the idea that he was forced out via contact should have been a slam-dunk decision," said Billick.