FOXBOROUGH, MASS. — - On a day when the Ravens could have laid claim to being the best team in the NFL, they let the opportunity - and the ball - slip through their grasp.
Wide receiver Mark Clayton's dropped fourth-down pass at the New England 8-yard line ended the Ravens' last-minute comeback bid in a 27-21 loss to the Patriots and finished off a mistake-filled game for the NFL's second-ranked offense.
"It was a perfect ball. I dropped it," Clayton said after the Ravens came up 14 yards short of the end zone. "I just wasn't able to come up with it, and it cost us the game.
"It hurts tremendously because you want to win the game and you want the ball in a critical situation. To not be able to come up with it is tough."
The Ravens' first regular-season loss since Dec. 14, 2008, dropped them into a tie atop the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals (3-1), who come to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
The Ravens (3-1) might have become the class of the NFL if their offense had continued its early-season run against the Patriots (3-1), a franchise that has defined success this decade.
But Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw his first interception in the red zone this season. The Ravens couldn't gain a yard to keep their second-to-last drive alive, getting stopped on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1. And their receivers failed to catch the ball on the final drive.
Needing a touchdown to win, the Ravens had three dropped passes in the red zone during the last 70 seconds of the game. On first down, Clayton ran a fade route and got one hand on the ball in the end zone. After a 6-yard catch by Kelley Washington, Derrick Mason couldn't pull in a third-down pass that sailed a little behind him. Then, on fourth down, Clayton watched the ball bounce off his chest.
If Clayton had made the catch, the Ravens would have had first down at the New England 8-yard line with 28 seconds to go.
"We made some great catches in that very drive, and we didn't come up with some catches," coach John Harbaugh said. "Those are all tough catches. Protection's got to be there. Throw's got to be there. It all goes together. You can't single [out] one thing."
The Ravens dealt with emotional issues throughout the game. Offensive tackle Jared Gaither was carted off the field in the second quarter, but team officials said he had feeling in his extremities, and X-rays were negative.
The Ravens' locker room was also abuzz after the game about the officiating, as players questioned two roughing-the-passer penalties and the spotting of the ball. But the reason the Ravens aren't 4-0 for the second time in team history can be blamed, for the first time this season, on the ineffectiveness of the offense.
The AFC's highest-scoring attack managed two offensive touchdowns. The Ravens' offense controlled the ball for 25 minutes, its lowest total of the season. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron ignored the league's fifth-best rushing attack (the Ravens averaged 6.8 yards on a season-low 17 carries). And Flacco finished 27-for-47 for 264 yards, a result of countless hits from the Patriots' blitzes and the shaky hands of the Ravens' receivers.
"We didn't execute when we needed to," Flacco said. "We didn't execute the plays that were critical in the game."
He added, "The most important thing in the NFL is how you respond to a loss."
The Ravens slipped up in other areas. Chris Carr was stripped on the opening kickoff, which led to a New England field goal. The Ravens were penalized twice for roughing quarterback Tom Brady, even though it looked as if defensive tackle Haloti Ngata grazed the side of Brady's helmet.
"I saw it. I'm not allowed to comment on it," Harbaugh said of Ngata's penalty. "I think you guys saw it, too, and you can make judgments for yourself."
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis was more emphatic.
"Without totally going off the wall here, it is embarrassing to the game," Lewis said. "Brady is good enough to make his own plays; let him make the play."
Another eyebrow-raising moment came with the Ravens trailing 24-21 in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-4 at the Ravens' 9, the Patriots went for a fake field goal, which called for punter Chris Hanson to throw a sideline pass to Chris Baker.
New England was called for illegal motion, but Harbaugh challenged whether Baker caught the ball. Referee Ron Winter upheld the ruling, and the Patriots converted a field goal to go ahead 27-21.
"We were challenging whether he caught it and whether it was in bounds and if it was a first down or not," Harbaugh said. "So, they felt it was all three of those things."
Said Winter: "[He] caught the pass [and it was] good for a first down. When we found out it was a completed pass, then the illegal motion penalty kicks in."
On the Ravens' next drive, they faced a third-and-1 at their own 45. But Ty Warren beat Ravens right tackle Marshal Yanda, who came into the game after Gaither was injured, and tackled Ray Rice for no gain.
On fourth-and-1, Willis McGahee was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Some Ravens players, however, wondered whether McGahee had converted the first down.
"It was a bad spot," McGahee said. "Not only that, it's my job to get a first down. We'd been getting bad calls the whole game."
Still, in the end, the Ravens had a chance to win the game. Harbaugh said he hopes his players can gain something from the first loss of the season.
"I thought our guys played their hearts out, but it wasn't good enough to win the game," Harbaugh said. "We have to take the opportunity to learn from it and become the kind of team that we're going to be this year. We'll see where that takes us."