The Baltimore Sun

Orchard Park, N.Y.-- --To the Ravens' credit, they didn't make excuses. That might have been because their coach, Brian Billick, demanded they don't - or something to that effect, loudly, in a Ralph Wilson Stadium locker room.

Or it might have been because they knew, instinctively, that the players responsible for the devastating 19-14 loss to the formerly one-win Buffalo Bills yesterday were not the ones who didn't play, such as Steve McNair and Todd Heap and Chris McAlister and (for most of the game) Jonathan Ogden.

The Ravens lost, fell to 4-3, branded themselves as Super Bowl pretenders and set themselves up for a stormy trip through the final two months because of the players who did play.

At the bye week, one game shy of the halfway point of the season, there are only two ways to evaluate this team, perceived by many - including themselves - as among the AFC's elite:

They're a good team playing very badly.

They're not actually that good at all.

The latter is closer to the truth. They're a middle-of-the-pack team, watching the true elite disappear over the horizon. There's no switch they can flip that will make them catch up. They say they'll try. After the bye, Derrick Mason said, "we're either going to come out fighting like a lion, or we'll stay balled up like a cub."

Strong words, but they make you wonder why this team, with its reputation, has been playing balled up this long. From here, it looks as if the Ravens' claws just aren't as sharp as they thought they were.

The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts (and maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers) don't go down to losing teams, but the Ravens have losses to three teams that don't have winning records and whose combined mark going into yesterday was 5-11. Elite teams win on the road, but the Ravens are 1-3 away from Baltimore and are a shanked 52-yard field-goal attempt in San Francisco away from being winless.

And elite teams manage to beat someone besides the backup quarterback. The Ravens have wins over teams led by Kellen Clemens, Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer and Gus Frerotte. Yesterday, they couldn't handle rookie Trent Edwards, anointed the starter just this week and running a no-huddle offense the whole game.

Edwards hardly spun a gem yesterday. But the Bills dominated the time of possession the way the Ravens have most weeks. They produced only field goals for nearly three quarters, and that was good enough, especially since that constantly left the Ravens' offense scrambling.

And the way they kept pounding Marshawn Lynch - genius. If only the guy Lynch replaced in Buffalo, the much-booed Willis McGahee, got work that regularly for the Ravens. For all the ways that McGahee has proved what a great acquisition he is, the Ravens keep leaving us wanting more from him - touches, particularly.

Once again, at the end - literally so, on that irritating final possession, with the three straight incompletions with a yard to go for a first down - the Ravens' fate was left in the hands of Kyle Boller. Maybe McNair would have been better; so far in this sputtering season, he hasn't been. Maybe the better plays could have been called for either of them, too.

To hang the hopes of the season on the post-bye health of McNair, Ogden, Heap and other injured starters is to be in denial. With most of those players in the lineup, the Ravens played pretty much the same, and many of them will finish the season in less-than-ideal health.

And to point to a "lack of focus," as Billick did in noting the rash of penalties and other mental mistakes, just damns the team even more.

"We're professionals. We're going to get penalties," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Plus, we're on the road. We have to be accountable. Are we going to say we lost because of those couple of [penalties]? Absolutely not. A lack of focus, in my opinion, had nothing to do with it."

The mood in the locker room was that they're better than this. But they might need to consider the alternative.

"We can't tell ourselves, 'It's OK,' because it's not," Ogden said. "When you realize that and accept that, as a team - I'm not talking about any one person in particular, I mean the whole team - and when we make an effort to go in the same direction, that's the only way we can come out of it."

It gives the Ravens too much credit to say they've underachieved in the first half. This is how good they are. Good enough to hang around a decent team on the road and fall short at the end. Part of the wild-card scrum at best, if they play over their heads from now on.

Deep down, they know it.


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