Instead of making a defining run to the postseason, the Ravens appear to be fading fast, much like their secondary did in the clutch yesterday.
The Ravens suffered a 27-26 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that was as devastating as it was disturbing, with a monumental fourth-quarter collapse that stunned an M&T Bank Stadium crowd of 69,695 and put the team's season on notice.
Shayne Graham kicked a 24-yard field goal as time expired to seal a disheartening defensive meltdown never before seen in the Brian Billick era.
The Ravens couldn't cover Cincinnati's receivers. They couldn't tackle them. They couldn't stop them to make that one pivotal stand.
The NFL's stingiest defense surrendered 24 points in the fourth quarter - the most ever in franchise history - as the Ravens failed to hold a 20-3 lead. The Ravens' secondary gave up 200 yards passing in the final period as the Bengals converted for scores on their last four drives, marching 19, 76, 68 and 60 yards.
Inside the usually confident Ravens locker room, faces were awash with disappointment, anger and confusion.
"It's a little tough to put it into words right now," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "The way this defense fell apart, it's uncharacteristic. It doesn't happen, not around here."
This is a Ravens team that had not caved in Billick's six-year tenure when leading by 14 or more points, a span of 36 games. This is a Bengals team that had not beaten a team with a winning record on the road since 1990, a streak of 42 straight defeats.
If the Ravens' loss in New England last week was humbling, this one was humiliating.
"It's like a bad dream," right guard Bennie Anderson said. "It's like it isn't real."
When the Ravens wake up today, they'll find themselves on the playoff bubble.
At 7-5, they are still tied with the Denver Broncos for the sixth and final AFC wild-card berth, with the Bengals (6-6), Jacksonville Jaguars (6-6) and Buffalo Bills (6-6) a game behind. As far as the AFC North, the Ravens trail the Pittsburgh Steelers by four games with four weeks remaining in the regular season.
"It was a very, very difficult loss," Billick said. "Now, we've put ourselves in a situation where we've got a real uphill climb."
The difficulties for the Ravens began soon after cornerback Chris McAlister scored a 64-yard touchdown, recovering a fumble off Ed Reed's interception, to stake the Ravens to a 20-3 bulge with 2:29 left in the third quarter.
Two minutes later, Ravens returner B.J. Sams let a punt drop through both arms, giving the ball to the Bengals at the Ravens' 19-yard line and providing the opening for Cincinnati's comeback.
Two plays after Sams' fifth fumble this season, Palmer hit receiver Chad Johnson for a 13-yard touchdown.
On the next drive, it was Palmer to Johnson for a 12-yard touchdown. On the next drive, it was Palmer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a 9-yard score.
Then, after Matt Stover's 45-yard field goal put the Ravens ahead 26-24 with 1:42 left in the game, Palmer went to work again and put Cincinnati in field-goal range with a 22-yard pass to Johnson.
The throw to the Ravens' 9-yard line was an easy one because McAlister didn't jam Johnson at the line, letting the Bengals' receiver run past him and get open along the sideline. Graham's field goal finished off the Ravens' first home loss to the Bengals in eight tries, dating back to 1996 in Memorial Stadium.
"It's so important to do this and exorcise another demon," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "We're back but not over the hump."
McAlister was the only defensive back who left the locker room without talking, but linebacker Ray Lewis' comments spoke volumes about his teammates' passion, or lack thereof.
"I think it's a gut check for anybody who didn't put their heart in this game," Lewis said. "If you walk on the football field, there's two things you're going to do: Either you're going to watch it or you're going to play it. When you're talking about a team concept, team only exists by simply every man doing their job. So when they understand that, that's their gut check.
"It's hard for me to keep speaking for everybody. Whoever's accountable for the gut check, tell them to gut check themselves."
The accountability fell on the Ravens' pass defense, which had a sporadic rush and consistently bad coverage. That paved the way in the fourth quarter for Palmer to complete 10 of 13 passes for 200 yards (his only incompletions were two spikes to stop the clock and an intentional grounding).
In the end, the Ravens' defense was shredded for more points in the fourth quarter than it had permitted in nine entire games this season. And the implosion came with Marvin Lewis, the architect of the Ravens' history-making defense of 2000, standing on the other sideline.
"It would be nice to say it was just one thing, but it wasn't," Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "We played poorly, and not in just one area.
"The curiosity is why did it occur? Why did we do that? When we do the things we do, we're typically pretty damn good. But we weren't good today."
The offense can take some of the blame for the Ravens' second straight loss.
Behind Chester Taylor's career-best 139 yards rushing, the Ravens drove inside the red zone four times and came away with just one touchdown. It marked the seventh time in 12 games that the offense has scored one or no touchdowns.
Playing it safe seemed to be the mind-set for most of the game. With six seconds left in the first half, the Ravens chose to kick a field goal on third down at the Bengals' 4 rather than run one more play. And midway through the fourth quarter, they ran the ball on third-and-nine and kicked a field goal, settling for a 23-17 advantage that didn't hold up.
"As an offensive team, there are going to be some games that we have to bail our defense out and today was one of them," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "As an offense, instead of those field goals, we needed touchdowns. It was great to put these drives together, but we fell short."
If the Ravens fall short again, a playoff berth could be out of reach.
The Ravens finish their regular season with home games against the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins and road contests at the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Many of the players believe they have to win all of those games to make the playoffs.
"You've got two choices: you can either suck it up and fight or you lay down and roll over. That's not our mentality," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "It was an aberration today. Some funny things happened out there. We have got to come out next week and play our butts off. We have no choice.
"I'm definitely angry. We've got to get [ticked] off and find a way. Shoot, we're too good of a team to go out there and do what we did today. The key is we got to fight."
Down by 17, the Bengals use a turnover to spark a come-from-behind win.
:16 - On punt return, B.J. Sams muffs catch; Bengals recover. Ravens 20, Bengals 3
14:55 - Two plays later, Palmer throws to C. Johnson for TD. Ravens 20, Bengals 10
10:39 - Capping 76- yard drive, Palmer throws to C. Johnson for TD. Ravens 20, Bengals 17
8:34 - After 53-yard drive, Stover kicks field goal. Ravens 23, Bengals 17
5:38 - Capping 68-yard drive, Palmer throws to Houshmandzadeh for TD. Bengals 24, Ravens 23
1:42 - After problematic 31-yard drive, Stover kicks field goal. Ravens 26, Bengals 24
:00 - After 60-yard drive, Graham kicks field goal. Bengals 27, Ravens 26
Letting it slip away
The Ravens wasted a 17-point fourth-quarter lead in yesterday's 27-26 loss to Cincinnati. It was the third-largest lead the Ravens have blown in their history:
Lead, Opponent, Date, Score, Result
21, Pittsburgh, Oct. 5, 1997, 21-0, L, 42-34
18, Cincinnati, Nov. 3, 1996, 21-3, L, 24-21
17, Cincinnati, Dec. 5, 2004, 20-3, L, 27-26
15, Jacksonville, Nov. 24, 1996, 25-10, L, 28-25, OT
Down the stretch
With Pittsburgh, New England, Indianapolis and San Diego holding division leads of at least two games, here's a look at the remaining schedules for the six teams in the mix for the two wild-card spots.
Team (W-L) Wk. 14, Wk. 15, Wk. 16, Wk. 17
N.Y. Jets (9-3) at Pit., Sea., N.E., at St. L.
Ravens (7-5) N.Y.G., at Ind., at Pit., Mia.
Denver (7-5) Mia., at K.C., at Ten., Ind.
Jacksonville (6-6) Chi., at G.B., Hou., at Oak.
Cincinnati (6-6) at N.E., Buf., N.Y.G., at Phi.
Buffalo (6-6) Cle., at Cin., at S.F., Pit.