CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The omen came early yesterday, when starting middle linebacker Ray Lewis aggravated a hip pointer during warm-ups and was pulled from a starting defense already decimated by injuries. Top defensive players such as linebacker Mike Caldwell and end Rob Burnett were out with knee injuries, and so were outside linebackers Jerrol Williams and Craig Powell.
And now Lewis.
The injury forced the Ravens to change schemes and eventually wear down as the Carolina Panthers scored on two long drives in the second half to defeat the Ravens, 27-16, before 70,075 at Ericsson Stadium.
As has been the case all season, the Ravens (4-11) stayed close for most of the game, but were done in by a 12-play, 63-yard drive that took 6: 36 and ended with fullback Scott Greene catching a 1-yard touchdown pass with 3: 38 left. The touchdown gave Carolina (11-4) its final margin and sealed at least a first-round playoff game at home for the Panthers.
The Ravens' last drive ended with quarterback Vinny Testaverde throwing his second interception of the day. Cornerback Tyrone Poole ran the interception from the Carolina 6 to the Panthers' 41 with 1: 47 left.
"We're not beyond frustration. We just haven't won on the road, and we haven't broken .500," said Ravens wide receiver Michael Jackson. "We have a season full of haven'ts. If they say losses build character, then we have a whole lot of character.
"But we have a solid foundation we can construct our building on for next year. We'll be all right."
The Ravens had no defensive foundation. With the injury to Lewis, the team's leading tackler with 129, the Ravens were forced to change from a 3-4 defensive alignment to the 4-3 they had used earlier in the season.
The injury also left the team with just five healthy linebackers -- two of them rookies who have played only on special teams -- which may have led to the second-half meltdown.
"The injury affected us quite a bit," said Eddie Sutter, who started in place of Lewis and finished with eight tackles along with outside linebacker Mike Croel. "We were going with the 3-4, but had to scratch that for the 4-3. There were some plays we couldn't use.
"We got tired a little bit late in the game, but that really wasn't a factor."
Give Carolina some credit. After trailing 13-10 at the half, the Panthers scored 10 points on their first two drives of the third quarter. They came out mixing the running of Anthony Johnson with the passing of Kerry Collins.
Carolina went 76 yards in 12 plays, the final one a 6-yard touchdown pass from Collins to Mark Carrier over the middle with 7: 06 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers scored again on their next possession, this time on John Kasay's 44-yard field goal that gave the Panthers a 20-13 lead with 3: 01 left in the third quarter.
"We don't seem to be able to stand prosperity," said Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda, whose team has held halftime leads in its last 10 games, but won only two. "We were up at halftime and we come out and we didn't continue that enthusiasm we had in the first half. They scored immediately. We didn't move the football. We fumbled the kickoff. Those are the kind of things that hurt us."
Carolina coach Dom Capers said: "We have been here before. I told them we had to go out and keep our poise. We had to go out and play at a high level. The game is going to be decided in the second half by who's playing the hardest and who makes the most plays."
The Ravens made only a few plays in the second half, their only scoring drive of 62 yards ending with a 25-yard field goal by Matt Stover with 12: 27 left in the game.
The Ravens had one other drive in the second half, but it ended with Testaverde fumbling a snap from center Wally Williams and the Panthers recovering at their 28 with 1: 28 left in the third quarter.
Marchibroda seemed to get a little defensive about his team's lack of offensive production in the second half.
"I think you have a tendency to measure the offense by touchdowns, and maybe you should," said Marchibroda. "But I know this: We moved the football. Last week, we moved the football. This week, we don't get into the plus 20. All I can ask from our football team is that we move the football and we do that. We are not going to score 35 every game."
The Ravens' offense moved the ball well in the first half after Testaverde's first interception led to a 29-yard field goal by Kasay 2: 48 into the game.
The Ravens, on the arm of Testaverde, went from their own 24 down to the Panthers' 23 before Testaverde threw a touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone to Michael Jackson, who tapped the ball over the head of cornerback Eric Davis before making the catch.
The Ravens scored on their final two possessions of the second quarter, both on field goals by Stover, one of 37 yards and the other of 46, to take a 13-10 lead.
But the Ravens needed a touchdown, much like Carolina's last touchdown drive. The Panthers banged Johnson inside the tackles six times for 25 yards and Collins completed passes of 7, 16, 8, 6 and 1 yard.
It was a classic drive, one that the Ravens envied and one they couldn't stop.
"We made some mistakes which kind of hurt us in the second half," said Ravens cornerback Antonio Langham, who had two interceptions. "It's been our story the whole year. We played hard, and we should have come out on top."
Said Testaverde: "It was another game where we come away with a disappointing loss. It was another game that we let get away. We don't have bad luck. Sometimes, you have to create your own."