Finger-pointing is low, but ifs are flying high

Gary Stills said he believes in "a higher power." He also believes in karma. After yesterday's soul-crusher of a loss to the Cleveland Browns, the special teams ace isn't sure which is wrecking the Ravens' season more.

Whichever is casting what called "a dark cloud" over the team, it's manifesting itself in the way the Ravens have been rewarded and punished the past two seasons. Then, they went 13-3 and won the division. Now, with Phil Dawson's overtime kick at M&T; Bank Stadium yesterday, they're pretty much done.


"Look at last year; we won games by the skin of our teeth," Stills said on the way out of the gloomiest Ravens locker room in years. "And it's all evening out. You can see the difference in how much we're losing by, or how all our mistakes are glaring."

The glaring mistakes. God, or the football gods, or their own ineffective selves, made the Ravens keep screwing up over and over. Everything good they did was always counteracted by something devastating.


To their credit, it was a team effort. Nobody pointed fingers, but there wouldn't have been enough to cover everybody. Everybody, on offense, defense and special teams and all the coaches, was entitled to one.

Subtract any individual mess-up, and the Ravens might have gotten the chance to stay in the locker room and celebrate, instead of getting re-dressed and re-pumped up for the overtime created by Dawson's once-in-a-lifetime game-tying ricochet off the upright and the support bar.

For instance, Dawson might not have had enough leg to get it there had the Ravens' coverage team done anything to slow Joshua Cribbs on the kickoff after Matt Stover's go-ahead field goal with 26 seconds left. They didn't stop him all day, nor did they ever decide to kick away from him once they realized they couldn't stop him.

If, on the drive that led to Stover's kick, they had not wasted yet another late-game second-and-one, the Browns might not have had time to even get the ball back, much less give Dawson a chance. But again, as he did in similar spots against the Jets and Bills, Brian Billick called pass plays that didn't work, and Stover didn't get a chance to end the game with his kick.

The defense, however, had a chance to stop a Browns offense that kept getting in its own way all day, from gaining 24 yards on two plays in 23 seconds.

Otherwise, the defense played well enough most of the day to earn a win. The offense, especially Kyle Boller and Devard Darling, played well enough in the fourth quarter to compensate for how it had played earlier. Stover did his job. A win was there to be taken.

But oh, all those ifs.

If Ed Reed hadn't fair-caught a third-quarter punt at his own 4, the Browns would never had gotten the field position it used to retake the lead just after the Ravens had taken it earlier in the quarter. If Darling had fought for a fourth-down pass inside the 5 on the Ravens' final possession of the first half, instead of trying to draw a pass-interference call, the Ravens might have gotten a desperately needed score.


If Boller hadn't flung the ball up wildly in the face of the rush inside the 20 in the third, the Browns would not have managed the inevitable interception and 100-yard return for a touchdown. If Haloti Ngata hadn't punched Joe Thomas in the middle of the scramble for a Browns fumble on their first possession, the Ravens might have been in better position to score early.

If the defense hadn't let the Browns keep the ball for seven minutes on their way to a field goal (a drive featuring six offensive penalties) late in the first half, Ray Lewis' touchdown off an interception return would have meant more. Then again, had the offense done better than the 7 total yards and three turnovers it had produced up until their last possession of the half, the defense wouldn't have had to play as if it couldn't make a mistake.

Afterward, there was a lot of talk about breaks, and odds, and luck, and forces beyond their control. But not from everybody.

"If you want to win," said Chris McAlister, "you have to go out and take it. You can't just sit back and wait for things to fall into your lap."

The Ravens all did a little bit to take it, and a lot to give it away. In light of that, this game isn't that hard to explain after all.