A WEEK EARLIER in Foxboro, Mass., the Ravens' locker room resonated with confidence. That loss to the Patriots in the muck was not enough to shake the Ravens' belief that a playoff berth was theirs for the taking.
They seemed like lunatic optimists (or optimistic lunatics) then. But with 17 1/2 minutes left in yesterday's game at M&T; Bank Stadium, they seemed clairvoyant. Everything was going according to plan. Almost time to cross the Bengals off their to-do list. Next: Beat the Giants here, then Indianapolis or Pittsburgh on the road, then the Dolphins at home.
Then, in the final quarter-plus, the Ravens faded, in historic fashion, everywhere and in every way. And in the locker room this time, the aura of confidence had faded, too. In its place was a sharply defined sense of reality.
No more talk of "we'll see these guys again in the playoffs." It was more of what Jonathan Ogden was saying, with a grimace, as he sat before his locker in a rapidly emptying room.
"There's only two ways to look at it. We get ourselves together and bounce back from this, or we're finished," Ogden said. "Those are our only choices. If we can't go out and do that, just fold it up."
Left unsaid was that no matter how well they recover from the blow the Bengals delivered, the Ravens aren't going anywhere without help. The team that fancied itself a Super Bowl contender and AFC North favorite is reduced to four weeks of scoreboard-watching.
That's if the Ravens are lucky - and they may have used up all of their luck. They were handed a win by the Jets last month. They caught a huge break hours after the Patriots loss when the Broncos gagged on their home field, in the snow, to the Raiders, and caught another one late yesterday when the Broncos sank in San Diego.
Meanwhile, the Bengals kept trying to hand the Ravens the hammer to drive the nails into the coffin. At least twice at the end, the zebras even held the nails straight for them (a very shaky excessive celebration flag after the Bengals' go-ahead touchdown, and a similarly shady illegal contact call that negated Chester Taylor's fumble on the Ravens' subsequent go-ahead drive).
The team that lives off capitalizing on others' mistakes instead made tons of its own mistakes. At home. Against a division foe. Facing essentially a rookie at quarterback and a defense whose tackling is sub-Pop Warner-level. In the final month of the season.
The Bengals looked like the team that holds its destiny in its hands - and like the team on the rise. Back in Week 3, when the Ravens had routed them in Cincinnati, the Bengals had as few answers as the Ravens had yesterday. Now, Carson Palmer is doing a great impression of a quarterback making The Leap. Marvin Lewis is reaping rewards for steering his team over two years of potholes that had taken 15 additional years to create. They're manufacturing wins that, as linebacker Brian Simmons said, "You can look back on it and say, yeah ... "
"We're back, but we're not over the hump," Lewis said, more or less completing Simmons' thought.
The Ravens, meanwhile, suddenly look like a team on the wrong side of the hump, at the wrong time. If Ray Lewis is upset enough to give a "gut-check" speech, then the situation has gotten grave.
"It's a different part of the year. Things are at stake," acknowledged Ed Reed, whose unit caved more visibly than the rest. "We're not trying to lose, especially with our record and their record. But when it does happen, what do you do?"
You do the best you can - even answer the gut-check call - but then you hope your competition does its worst. That's all they can do.
Whatever seeds of doubt not sown last Sunday in New England were planted yesterday. It's now about more than just the final four games of this season and the scenarios that would give the Ravens the edge for the final playoff spot.
It's also about the near future. It's about a defense that can't be expected to score points on its own so often or to gift-wrap points for its offense. It's about an offense that has to be rewarded when it does move the ball, but one that has to hold up its end a lot better. It's about big-play defenders giving up big plays, and a quarterback who has yet to show that "it" that Palmer did yesterday, and that is also on display elsewhere in the division (with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, in case you weren't sure).
If nothing else, it makes for an uncomfortable final month now, as the players and coaches keep an ear out for score updates every Sunday. The searching for out-of-town scores, however, was preceded by the searching within and the questions about how (or if) the Ravens can shake off this crushing defeat.
"If you've got the answer to that," Ravens coach Brian Billick said, "you're a better man than I am."
Down the stretch
With Pittsburgh, New England, Indianapolis and San Diego holding division leads of at least two games, here's a look at the remaining schedules for the six teams in the mix for the two wild-card spots.
Team (W-L) Wk. 14 Wk. 15 Wk. 16 Wk. 17
N.Y. Jets (9-3) at Pit. Sea. N.E. at St. L.
Ravens (7-5) N.Y.G. at Ind. at Pit. Mia.
Denver (7-5) Mia. at K.C. at Ten. Ind.
Jacksonville (6-6) Chi. at G.B. Hou. at Oak.
Cincinnati (6-6) at N.E. Buf. N.Y.G. at Phi.
Buffalo (6-6) Cle. at Cin. at S.F. Pit.