No end to Ravens' zone

Second place is gone.

Home-field advantage is debatable.

The playoffs, at this moment, look like a pipe dream.

The Ravens' free fall through the AFC Central continued yesterday with a wretched 9-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in front of 69,405, the largest crowd in PSINet Stadium history.

Undone by another desultory offensive performance, the Ravens lost their third straight game and landed with a thud in third place at 5-4.

After five consecutive games without a touchdown, how much more embarrassment can one offense endure?

"The perspective here has to change," Ravens coach Brian Billick said grimly, after losing his second straight home game. "There are no easy answers for this. We're in a dead dogfight now to reach our main objective, which is to reach the playoffs."

Playoffs? The Ravens would be ecstatic just to reach the end zone these days.

Not even a change in quarterbacks could get them there yesterday. A recharged running game didn't do it, either. And perhaps worst of all, even the Ravens' superb kicking game couldn't pull the trigger when it had a chance in the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Trent Dilfer, making his first start in 11 months, replaced Tony Banks with almost predictable results. He completed 11 of 24 passes for 152 yards, but committed two critical turnovers - one a fumble on the Steelers' 9-yard line, the other an interception in the end zone.

Rookie running back Jamal Lewis got the ball 22 times and accounted for 146 of the team's 274 yards from scrimmage, 93 of them rushing. He had a 35-yard run and a 40-yard catch-and-run, and still the Ravens couldn't find the end zone.

The touchdown drought is approaching mythic proportions. The Ravens haven't gotten to the end zone in 20 quarters, 58 possessions and a staggering 306 minutes, 39 seconds. They haven't scored a touchdown since Obafemi Ayanbadejo plunged in from the 1 on Sept. 24 in the fourth quarter of a 37-0 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Their touchdown-less October placed the Ravens in some not-so-elite company. The 1993 Indianapolis Colts went 20 quarters without a touchdown; the 1991 Colts went 21.

"You can't call it a dry spell anymore," said center Jeff Mitchell.

It's full-scale retreat, with angst.

"Sometimes I wish I was a billionaire," said millionaire tight end Shannon Sharpe, "because I'd like to give the fans all their money back, because this is ridiculous. They deserve to have their money back the way we played in the past month."

That's a check owner Art Modell won't write. He's already spent enough on an offense that can't score.

The Ravens' latest debacle featured two puzzling special teams plays. A fumbled kickoff by Corey Harris led to Kris Brown's winning 24-yard field goal in the third quarter. Billick lost a replay challenge - and a vital timeout - trying to get the ball back.

But the bigger curiosity came in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers up 9-6 and the Ravens with the ball on the Pittsburgh 33. Rather than attempt a tying 50-yard field goal on fourth-and-six or try for the first down, Billick opted to punt with less than eight minutes left.

He was hoping to pin the Steelers deep, then get the ball back for his offense in good field position. The strategy backfired, however, when the Steelers ran the next 4:46 off the clock and pinned the Ravens on their 10 with a punt.

Kicking with the 20-mph wind gusts, Matt Stover had already hit from 51 and 49 yards in the second quarter, extending his streak of consecutive points to 46. In the fourth quarter, the Ravens went into the wind.

"Matt felt it was outside his range," Billick said. "We have reached a pretty good comfort zone about communicating with one another about the distance, the wind, whatever."

Stover said he maintained a constant conversation with offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and special teams coach Russ Purnell about field conditions in the fourth quarter.

"The field conditions weren't very good, either," Stover said. "Everything had to be pretty much perfect in that situation, and they weren't. I said, 'You've got to get me to the 30-, 32-yard line.' It was the 33. It didn't work out.

"If I missed it, I didn't want them to get the ball on the 41-, 42-yard line. As it ended up, they got the ball on the 10."

A defense that has allowed just four touchdowns in the past six games gave up one too many yesterday. That was a 45-yard pass from Kordell Stewart to Hines Ward that left cornerback Duane Starks clutching at another big play.

Stewart, 6-0 against the Ravens, ran a bootleg and Hines ran a streak pattern. Starks said Hines normally runs a deep out when Stewart runs a bootleg.

The Ravens didn't make the two big plays on offense that could have gotten them out of the drought, either. Dilfer simply mishandled Mitchell's snap after driving to the Pittsburgh 9 on his first series.

In the third quarter, he was intercepted by cornerback Dewayne Washington when he overthrew split end Qadry Ismail.

"I threw the ball a little late," Dilfer said. "Interceptions are part of the game. If you're afraid to throw the ball up in a position where a guy can make a play, then you've got no future as a quarterback."

In the fourth quarter, the Ravens lost rookie flanker Travis Taylor with a broken left collarbone, an injury suffered when he dropped a high pass. He's expected to miss four to six weeks.

Let the dogfight begin. Next week, the Ravens visit Cincinnati.

"You can't go out there and play not to lose," said safety Rod Woodson. "You've got to go out there and play to win. And I don't know that we've done that these last three weeks, to be honest."