INDIANAPOLIS - The Ravens didn't let Peyton Manning beat them.
They did the work for him.
The Ravens' 20-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts last night was the result of critical third-quarter lapses on defense and special teams, not the hottest quarterback in football.
Despite holding Manning in check and short of the NFL record for touchdown passes, the Ravens failed to pull off the upset at the RCA Dome because of cornerback Chris McAlister's wrong turn on a touchdown pass and kicker Matt Stover's low field goal.
"You've got to play a complete game," coach Brian Billick said. "You can't turn over the ball and we turned it over in some unique ways. We didn't do enough of the whole package to get a win tonight."
The Jaguars have the easiest remaining schedule of the four teams, with games against Houston (6-8) and Oakland (5-9), while the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh (13-1) and then host Miami (2-11).
"That's the thing you have to hold on to," Billick said. "There's 32 games left in the NFL and they're all going to have some impact. We have a tall task going to Pittsburgh, but we're going to have fun doing it."
The loss was even more frustrating for the Ravens because they hit their major objectives: running Jamal Lewis (130 yards rushing) and containing the NFL's highest-scoring offense. The Ravens' defense, which played with its dime package (two pass defenders instead of linebackers) most of the game, held the Colts to their lowest point total of the season and limited Manning to one passing touchdown.
Manning, who didn't throw for multiple touchdowns for the first time in 14 games this season, is one touchdown shy of Dan Marino's 20-year-old single-season mark of 48. He was 20-for-33 for 249 yards, doing just enough to lift the Colts (11-3) to their seventh straight victory.
"We weren't going to let Peyton Manning get the record against us," cornerback Gary Baxter said.
The solid defensive performance, which included no first downs on four of 11 drives, was tarnished on Indianapolis' first possession of the second half when the Colts led 6-3.
Mixing the run and pass on 10 plays, the Colts methodically worked down the field before fooling the Ravens badly. Off a play-action fake to Edgerrin James, Manning found Marvin Harrison wide-open in the end zone for a 29-yard score.
Left alone on Harrison, McAlister turned the wrong way, going to the sideline while Harrison ran to the inside and had no Raven within 10 yards of him. It was only the second passing touchdown of more than 20 yards given up by the Ravens this season.
"It was just one-on-one pretty much and Marvin got open," McAlister said.
When asked to explain the play further, McAlister turned his back.
Down 13-3 late in third quarter, the Ravens looked to chip into that lead with a 31-yard field-goal try. The kick by the usually automatic Stover, however, hit Ravens lineman Bennie Anderson in the helmet.
Stover's second miss of the season was returned 24 yards to the Ravens' 31-yard line. Five plays later, James ran basically untouched from 3 yards to extend Indianapolis' advantage to 20-3 with 28 seconds left in the third quarter.
"To give a true evaluation, I'm not sure," Stover, who is 26-for-28 this season, said of possible penetration by the Colts' Larry Tripplett. "It looked like Bennie was back in the backfield a little bit and I kicked it a little low. It was a combination of both."
The Ravens responded on the ensuing kickoff, which was brought back 64 yards by returner B.J. Sams. Trimming the Colts' lead to 20-10, the Ravens converted on fourth down twice, including a 13-yard touchdown throw from quarterback Kyle Boller to tight end Todd Heap.
After the Ravens stopped Indianapolis on another three-and-out, they were driving again and moved to the Colts' 38 where they faced a fourth-and-seven. Rookie Clarence Moore, who stands 6 feet 6 and weighs 211 pounds, had the first-down catch in his hands but dropped it when hit by 5-8, 168-pound cornerback Jason David.
Their final possession ended in more frustration when Colts linebacker Cato June picked off Boller's fourth-down pass and returned it 71 yards to the Ravens' 4 with a minute left.
The only suspense left was whether Manning would tie the record. But the crowd of 57,240 booed when he knelt down twice, running out the clock.
"That's the right way to play," said Manning, who has 47 touchdown passes this season. "If they were to call a timeout right there, maybe it'd be a little bit different. They were kind of conceding that the game was over."
The Ravens, though, responded to adversity early, rebounding from a poor opening series that allowed the Colts to jump to a 3-0 lead. Lewis' 47-yard burst (his second-longest of the season) helped the Ravens tie the game early in the second quarter.
It appeared the Ravens were in control of the game late in the second quarter and were in position to take the lead going into halftime. Instead, they unraveled in the final two minutes of the half and left trailing.
Boller's 33-yard strike to Travis Taylor down the middle of the field got the Ravens into field-goal range. But end Dwight Freeney, who just outran All-Pro tackle Jonathan Ogden on the edge and delivered countless quarterback pressures, sacked Boller 9 yards behind the line and forced the Ravens to punt.
In one of his most irate moments of the season, Billick screamed as his offensive players came to the sideline.
"It was a mental error," Billick said. "It put us in jeopardy."
After the Ravens' defense managed another three-and-out, their offense had another shot to redeem itself. Boller, though, was intercepted on an overthrown pass and Indianapolis safety Mike Doss returned it 32 yards to midfield with 13 seconds remaining in the first half.
Manning then hit tight end Marcus Pollard, who went free down the seam past dime back Chad Williams, for a 31-yard pass and the Colts called a timeout with five seconds left. Vanderjagt's 33-yarder gave Indianapolis a 6-3 halftime advantage.
It was plays like those that swung the momentum and put the Ravens in a tough - but not impossible - position to make the playoffs. With such a logjam for the final spot, they'll likely have to win their final two games.
"It's very disappointing," Baxter said of the loss. "We competed to the last minute and we came up short. It's not over yet. I would like to see them again [in the playoffs] and it looks like it might be possible."
Down the stretch
Here's a look at the remaining schedules for the five teams in the mix for the two AFC wild-card spots.
Team (W-L) ........... AFC ................... Week 16 ................. Week 17
N.Y. Jets (10-4) ....... 7-4 ................... N.E. (12-1) ......... at St. L. (6-8)
Ravens (8-6) ............ 5-5 ................. at Pit. (13-1) ......... Mia. (2-11)
Denver (8-6) ............ 5-5 ................ at Ten. (4-10) ........ Ind. (11-3)
Jacksonville (8-6) .... 5-5 ............... Hou. (6-8) ............. at Oak. (5-9)
Buffalo (8-6) ............ 5-6 ............... at S.F. (2-12) ......... Pit. (13-1)