Game 16: Fitting finale

CLEVELAND — In a season loaded with disappointments, the Ravens reached the bitter end yesterday.

Giving away a 13-point lead to the reeling Cleveland Browns, the Ravens admittedly folded in a season-ending, 20-16 loss before a half-filled Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Their defense let up. Their special teams continually fouled up. And their once-scorching offense never showed up.

The Ravens' 11th straight road loss - the longest current skid in the NFL - stopped any momentum from a two-game winning streak and reared old questions about whether the coaches, players and the quarterback are in place to take this team in the right direction.

"We didn't really come to play today," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "You can't step on this field with no passion. The will and the want is one thing. But to come out and go through the motions, it's nonsense.

"We weren't true professionals today. Obviously, we didn't turn it on at a certain point. We were at a point where they would have shut it down if we would have done anything. But it went the opposite way."

The Ravens seemingly were on their way to their first road win since November 2004 when Thomas returned a fumble 9 yards for a touchdown, staking them to a 13-0 lead with 7:05 left in the second quarter.

Unable to deliver the finishing blow, the Ravens quickly dissolved into a scoring-challenged team after taking a 16-6 advantage in the third quarter. The Browns (6-10) scored two touchdowns in 1:22 to break a 12-quarter drought, turning the game around on a 6-yard touchdown catch by Antonio Bryant and a 62-yard punt return for a score by Dennis Northcutt.

It was another of many humbling defeats for the Ravens (6-10), who wrapped up their worst season in the seven-year Brian Billick era.

The Ravens crumbled to a turmoil-ridden Browns team that lost, 41-0, to Pittsburgh last week, nearly fired general manager Phil Savage two days ago and hadn't won an AFC North game all season.

"We didn't have the intensity. We didn't match the momentum swings," said Billick, who was retained for next season four days ago. "We had plenty of opportunities to put points on the board early in the game and create separation and didn't do it - reminiscent of the early problems in the season. It's very disappointing to revert back to it."

The Ravens' offense never resembled the one that scored eight touchdowns and averaged 401 yards the past two games.

Looking more like their long-struggling attack from the first three months of the season, the Ravens managed 267 yards, 12 first downs and countless ill-timed penalties as they failed to score an offensive touchdown for the fourth time this season.

In fact, they couldn't punch it into the end zone despite three trips into the red zone - including two inside the Browns' 6-yard line - and running 21 of 37 first-half plays in Cleveland territory.

If not for a two-lateral, 48-yard interception return to set up a field goal, the Ravens might not have scored in the second half. After the Ravens fell behind in the third quarter, the offense never drove past the Cleveland 49.

"We had the game and we beat ourselves. You name it and we did it," quarterback Kyle Boller said. "I felt like these last couple of weeks we really turned the corner. This was a little bit of a setback."

Riding the best two-game stretch of his career, Boller cooled considerably, completing 15 of 36 passes for 151 yards - the third-fewest yards in a game for Boller this season. Facing more pressure than he has seen recently, Boller fell into the same bad habits of rushing his mechanics, throwing off his back foot and misfiring to open receivers.

Billick acknowledged that Boller regressed "a little bit," but he declined to evaluate his quarterback's future.

"It's hard. I've got a whole offseason to assess that," Billick said. "We'll address that at the appropriate time."

Like Boller's pass protection, his receivers were sloppy. Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Chester Taylor all dropped passes. But Boller was wild, often throwing high and behind them.

Asked if he believed that he would be the starting quarterback next season, Boller said, "I hope so. All I can do is my best. You are going to have to ask the coaches about that kind of stuff. I'm just going to keep working. There is so much room for improvement. I feel like I can be that much better of a player and I think I will be."

The one throw that Boller would want to have back came in the Ravens' final drive.

With 1:20 left in the game, Mason had two steps on the nearest defender and ran free down the right sideline. But the potential touchdown throw sailed out of bounds at the Cleveland 20, and Mason never had a chance to make a play on the ball.

"It was a good read but that's a hard throw to make," Mason said of the 40-yard pass.

The offense shouldered a brunt of the blame but not all of it.

The Ravens' special teams allowed a punt return for a touchdown and a 54-yard kickoff return that set up the Browns' only offensive touchdown. There was also a bad snap from Matt Katula that sabotaged a 23-yard field-goal try in the second quarter.

As far as the Ravens' defense, it didn't give up a first down in the first seven possessions before contributing to the collapse. The pass rush that had dogged rookie quarterback Charlie Frye vanished, allowing the Browns to gain all of their 232 yards of offense in the final two-plus quarters.

"We should have won this game," linebacker Tommy Polley said. "I don't even know what to say about it. I'm stunned we lost myself.

"We know we can beat Cleveland. But we lost a lot of games we weren't supposed to: Cleveland, Detroit and probably Chicago. This was a game here that dictated how our season went, especially on the road."

The Ravens now enter an offseason of uncertainty.

They have to decide whether Boller is their starting quarterback or if a veteran is needed. They have to determine if Jamal Lewis or Taylor - both of whom are unrestricted free agents - will be their featured running back.

And, most importantly, they have to figure out if the foundation is there to rebound from an underachieving season to a playoff one.

"This team will win next year. I don't doubt that at all," Thomas said. "The question is: Do you want to be here for it?"

Ravens year by year


Year Coach Record Div. Playoffs

1996 Ted Marchibroda, 4-12, 5th -


1997 Marchibroda, 6-9-1, 5th -

1998 Marchibroda, 6-10, 4th -


1999 Brian Billick, 8-8, 3rd -

2000 Billick, 12-4, 2nd, *4-0


2001 Billick, 10-6, 2nd, 1-1

2002 Billick, 7-9, 3rd -

2003 Billick, 10-6, 1st ,0-1

2004 Billick, 9-7, 2nd -

2005 Billick, 6-10, 3rd -

Totals 78-81-1, 5-2

*-Won Super Bowl

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