PHILADELPHIA – When his final pass sailed over Ray Rice's head and hit the turf at Lincoln Financial Field, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw his hands up in the air in seeming desperation and disbelief.
The gesture was symbolic in a 24-23 loss Sunday to the Philadelphia Eagles in front of an announced 69,144, a defeat that revived long-standing second guessing about the offensive play-calling and left several prominent Ravens blasting the replacement officials.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick plunged in from the 1-yard line for the go-ahead score with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter and the Ravens' final drive stalled at their own 46 when they opted to throw the ball on back-to-back plays when all they needed was 1-yard for a drive-prolonging first down.
Under duress throughout, Flacco sailed both throws over the heads of his intended receivers. A week after a near flawless performance in a beat down of the Cincinnati Bengals, Flacco finished 22-of-42 for 232 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was just 8-of-25 in the second half when the Ravens saw leads of 17-7 and 23-17 disappear in their first loss of the season. .
"I wish I would have just scrambled around a little bit," Flacco said of his final ill-fated throw. "I threw my arms up, yeah. Maybe there was a little contact when the ball was in the air. I was just trying to get something crazy to happen … I was just hoping."
That's all the Ravens could do after a game in which they lost despite forcing four turnovers, getting 152 total yards of offense from Ray Rice and three clutch field goals from Justin Tucker, who tied Wade Richey's team record by converting a 56-yard field goal just before halftime.
Tucker broke a 17-all deadlock with a 51-yard field goal at the 11:28 mark of the fourth quarter. A little over six minutes later, the undrafted rookie free agent out of Texas converted from 48 yards out, upping the Ravens' lead to 23-17 with 4:43 to play.
However, Vick, who overcame two interceptions and two Eagles' fumbles deep in Ravens' territory, needed 10 plays to drive his team down the field for the go-ahead score. He hit wide receiver DeSean Jackson for 13 yards, tight end Brent Celek on passes of 24 yards and 13 yards, and Clay Harbor for 19 yards. He then finished the drive by taking it himself from 1-yard out.
Finding holes in a defense that lost safety Bernard Pollard to a rib injury late in the first quarter, Vick completed 23-of-32 passes for 371 yards with one passing touchdown, and he also ran for 34 yards and a touchdown.
"He can beat us in many ways but we made the plays we were supposed to make," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "For us to come in and get four turnovers, when you got somebody down, put them away. Don't leave a team [hanging] around."
Lewis then expressed his displeasure with the replacement referees and called for the NFL to settle the dispute with the regular officials.
"It's nothing about them per se. We're not directly attacking them. But we are saying we need the guys that do their regular jobs. The time is now. How much longer are we going to keep going through this process?," Lewis said. "I just know across the league, teams are being affected by that. If they want the league to have the same reputation it always had, then address the problem. Get the regular referees in here and let the games play themselves out. We should address it."
Lewis was miffed by the reversal of what was originally called a fumble by Vick on the play that proceeded his decisive running touchdown. Haloti Ngata drilled the quarterback, who appeared to throw the ball away before hitting the ground. The officials initially ruled it was a fumble and rewarded the Ravens the ball. However, their call was overturned, which appeared to be the right decision.
That was one of many gripes for the Ravens whose coach John Harbaugh later described the game, which included multiple altercations and stoppages, as "chaotic."
"The challenge for us right now is what constitutes what?," Harbaugh said. "What constitutes illegal contact, what constitutes pass interference, I'm not sure right now."
Harbaugh was referring in part to an offensive pass interference call on wide receiver Jacoby Jones that took away what would have been a 25-yard touchdown. The play, in which Jones out-maneuvered Nnamdi Asomugha in the end zone for the second time, would have given the Ravens a 27-17 lead with just over 5 minutes to play. Instead, they settled for Tucker's 48-yard field goal.
"He didn't even throw a flag," Flacco said. "He threw a blue beanie and then put his hands in the air like offensive pass interference. Come on."
Still, it never should have gotten to the point where calls were perceived as a potential difference in the game. The Ravens had control of the game with a 10-point lead and the ball early in the third quarter. However, Flacco threw an interception on the first possession of the second half and Vick turned it into a 23-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin.
The Ravens then went three-and-out on their next three drives as Rice, who rushed seven times for 78 yards in the first half, curiously turned into a decoy. After his 16-yard run at the 2:11 mark of the second quarter, Rice didn't take another handoff from Flacco until the 5:30 mark of the third quarter. The Ravens ran 12 offensive plays between the carries and gained 29 total yards, and threw an interception.
"We ran the plays that were called. I think we left a lot of plays on the field. They made more plays when they had to and we didn't," said Rice who finished with 16 carries for 99 yards and six catches for 53 yards . "I don't feel like [the running game] was abandoned. I feel like we had to do what we had to do. This new tempo offense, I'm never going to be the guy. My thing is always touches. As long as they find ways to get me the ball, that would be great. We were running the ball really well today."
The Ravens rushed for 111 total yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. However, their undoing was they went 4-for-14 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down.
"We just have to find a way to stay on the field on third down," said fullback Vonta Leach who scored on a 5-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, his first as a Raven. "For whatever reason, we weren't good on third downs."
The Ravens had six opportunities of third or fourth down and 2 yards or less that could have prolonged the drive. Each time, they passed and did not pick up the first down.
That, more than anything, may have been the difference in preparing for the AFC championship game rematch next Sunday against the New England Patriots coming off a brutal loss rather than an uplifting win.
"We'll probably go back and look and see if there's some things we could have done there just because they were doing a good job in their coverage and things like that," Flacco said. "The bottom lime is we have to execute and we weren't able to."