The Ravens' humbling 24-3 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots yesterday not only delivered a hit to their status among the conference's elite teams, but also struck a blow to their playoff chances.
Undone by a record-worst performance on offense and an equally forgettable tackling effort on defense, the Ravens (7-4) are now on the postseason bubble with five games remaining.
Assuming they make the playoffs - which is far from guaranteed at this point - their showing against New England (10-1) didn't offer much promise that it would be an extended run. In what was expected to be their statement game, the Ravens, like many of their shotgun snaps, were in over their heads yesterday.
"We've just got to win out," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "We can't dwell too much on this game. Our hopes are still up high. Now, a lot of teams in the AFC are playing good ball. So the margin of error for us right now is very slim."
Judging by yesterday's performance - their most lopsided loss since September 2002 - there are several such errors to address.
The Ravens mustered just 124 yards of total offense, the low point of the franchise's nine-year history. A shutout was only avoided because of New England's mistakes, as two major penalties (a facemask and an unsportsmanlike foul totaling 30 yards) set up the Ravens at the Patriots' 16-yard line. Matt Stover's 22-yard field goal represented the scoring for an offense that didn't cross midfield in the second half.
Even the stingiest defense in the NFL faltered, especially in a pivotal third quarter. Running back Corey Dillon stomped the Ravens for 123 yards rushing, bouncing to the outside where he slipped past arm tackles and stiff-armed out of others.
The playoffs, at the moment, are as murky as the muddy turf at Gillette Stadium.
The Ravens are virtually eliminated from the AFC North race - three games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers with five weeks left - and currently hold the final spot in the six-team playoff field, edging the Denver Broncos (7-4) because of a better conference record.
"Clearly, we weren't a good enough football team today to come in here and challenge a world champion," coach Brian Billick said. "This team is disappointed not playing better and not showing up better.
"We've got five weeks to get better and to improve to the point where we can come in here and play with a championship-caliber team."
A game tied at 3 at halftime quickly unraveled in just over a quarter.
The Patriots took advantage of starting near midfield to score on their first three drives of the second half. Dillon's 1-yard touchdown run, in which he reached the end zone with Ray Lewis hanging on his leg, staked New England to a 17-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.
"Once they got control of the game, that's an awful hard team to beat," Billick said.
Two plays later, Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller couldn't avoid pressure coming off both edges and had the ball punched out at his 8-yard line. Boller's sixth lost fumble, which is tied for most in the NFL, slipped out of running back Chester Taylor's grasp at the 2 and rolled into the end zone, where defensive lineman Jarvis Green recovered it for the touchdown.
The 24-3 deficit, which had ballooned 45 seconds into the fourth quarter, signaled the end of the Ravens' three-game winning streak.
"We didn't do our part," receiver Travis Taylor said. "Our defense came out and stopped a great offense. We've got to play better."
The combination of the Ravens being without running back Jamal Lewis (sprained ankle) and a beat-up Patriots secondary prompted the Ravens to attack primarily through the air.
But New England, which was without its top three corners, held the Ravens to 1.2 yards per attempt. The Ravens failed to gain a first down on half of their 14 drives and managed more than one first down on just one possession.
It marked the third time this season that the offense failed to score a touchdown.
"We thought we definitely could take advantage of those guys," Taylor said. "They just brought a lot of pressure. They blitzed and they blitzed. We really didn't get a chance to test them today."
Under pressure most of the game, Boller finished 15-for-35 for 93 yards. And when he did have time, it seemed like his throws short-hopped a few yards before reaching the receivers.
"This is just a temporary setback," said Boller, with mud caked on his face. "This isn't going to stop us. We're going to see them again."
If these teams do see each other again, the Ravens have to find a way to contain Dillon, who had been limited to 50 yards rushing in his past six meetings against Ray Lewis.
In the second half, Dillon accounted for more than half of New England's offense (83 of 156 yards).
"He got to the outside on us," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We knew he was going to do that and we still let him get out there. When he got to the outside, he did that thing."
In the end, the Ravens were dominated in yardage (314-124), time of possession (35:54 to 24:06) and turnovers (2-0).
"As you can see, it just rained a little harder on our side," safety Ed Reed said.
If the Ravens don't sweep those games, they can essentially brush their playoff chances to the side.
"You can't go and drop your head because we lost one game," said Ray Lewis, wearing a bandage over the bridge of his nose where he needed stitches. "We're 7-4, the playoff race is right where we need to be and everything will take care of itself."
After tying the game in the final seconds of the first half, the Ravens were dominated in the second half.
First downs 3, 11
Yds. rushing 34, 95
Yds. passing -5, 61
Total yds. 29, 156
Points 0, 21
Time of poss. 10:06, 19:54
Down the stretch
If the season ended today, the Ravens would qualify as the AFC's second wild-card team because of a better conference record than Denver. With Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis holding division leads of at least two games, here's a look at the remaining schedules for the five teams in the mix for the two wild-card spots.
Team (W-L) Wk. 13, Wk. 14, Wk. 15, Wk. 16, Wk. 17
N.Y. Jets (8-3) Hou., at Pit., Sea., N.E., at St. L.
*San Diego (8-3) Den., T.B., at Cle., at Ind., K.C.
Ravens (7-4) Cin., N.Y.G., at Ind., at Pit., Mia.
*Denver (7-4) at S.D., Mia., at K.C., at Ten., Ind.
Jacksonville (6-5) Pit., Chi., at G.B., Hou., at Oak.
*-San Diego or Denver will win the AFC West.