A season filled with hope began with the Ravens grimacing in pain.
The unsettling combination of injuries and turnovers was too much to overcome for the Ravens last night in a 27-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, a troubling first impression in front of a sold-out Paul Brown Stadium and a national television audience.
Just as in the Ravens' playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts last season, quarterback Steve McNair shouldered the blame for the Ravens' fourth straight loss in prime time.
Limping from the first quarter on with a groin injury, McNair turned over the ball four times (three fumbles and one interception), which led to 21 of the Bengals' 24 points off turnovers.
"As an offense, you can't turn the ball over six times and expect to win the football game," McNair said. "Even though we were in the ballgame the last few minutes, it's uncalled for and unacceptable of this offense and it all starts with me. I got to protect the ball and give my team a chance.
"I'll take it on the chin for this one. When you are involved in [four] of the six turnovers, you got to take responsibility as a quarterback and the leader of this football team to get that corrected. And we will get that corrected."
The long-term status of three star players -- McNair (groin), linebacker Ray Lewis (triceps) and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (toe) -- are unknown, according to coach Brian Billick.
Lewis told reporters he tore his triceps muscle, but a team spokesman described the injury as a strain and said the Ravens would not have sent Lewis back into the game with a torn muscle.
Instead of talking about injuries, the Ravens were more focused on the sting coming from the final two minutes of the game, when backup Kyle Boller had to replace McNair.
On fourth-and-goal from the Cincinnati 1-yard line and the Ravens trailing 27-20, Boller floated a pass to Todd Heap in the back of the end zone for an apparent touchdown, but Heap was called for pass interference for pushing off.
"It's tough to make a call like that with that situation in the game," Heap said. "From my point of view, he's grabbing my jersey and I try to get his hands off and go make a play. But I'm not calling the game and they are. And you got to go with what their calls are."
After a defensive holding penalty on the Bengals gave the Ravens four more downs, they were unable to capitalize.
The game essentially ended when a hard throw by Boller on third-and-goal from the 2-yard line ricocheted off Heap and was intercepted by Michael Myers in the end zone, the Ravens' sixth turnover of the game.
McNair said the Ravens can't feel jilted by the disputed call by the officials.
"We put ourselves in that position from the first quarter to the third quarter to be down by seven points," he said. "We could have beat this team if we would have kept the ball away from them.
"This will never happen again, putting my team in a position with six turnovers. This will never happen again."
The Ravens' first quarter ranked among the worst in team history.
McNair's second fumble in as many plays -- it came when he was being sacked -- led to a Chad Johnson 39-yard touchdown catch from Carson Palmer on the next play.
The flamboyant Bengals receiver celebrated on the sideline by putting on a mock Hall of Fame blazer that read on the back: Future H.O.F. 20??.
The kick after the touchdown was blocked -- punter Kyle Larson was temporarily replacing injured kicker Shayne Graham -- giving Cincinnati a 6-0 lead with 8:21 left in the first quarter.
Three plays after the score, Ravens rookie fullback Le'Ron McClain fumbled while trying to fight for more yards after his first career catch. The third turnover of the first quarter was converted into a 23-yard field goal by Graham, increasing the Bengals' lead to 9-0.
The Ravens closed to within 9-7 with an eight-play, 88-yard drive that featured Ogden limping to the sideline in the middle of it after aggravating his toe injury. Musa Smith capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run.
After the teams traded field goals, the Ravens were relieved to head into halftime with a 12-10 deficit.
"To only be down two at the half was amazing," Billick said.
But the Ravens' first series of the second half ended with another McNair fumble.
On the Ravens' third offense play of the third quarter, McNair's throwing arm was hit by end Geathers (who beat rookie right tackle Marshal Yanda) and the ball fell into the hands of linebacker Landon Johnson. He returned McNair's fumble 34 yards for a touchdown, extending Cincinnati's margin to 19-10.
The Ravens then staged an improbable comeback with a 23-yard field goal by Matt Stover and an impromptu return by Ed Reed.
Replacing injured punt returner B.J. Sams (who has a significant knee injury), Reed ran 63 yards untouched for a touchdown. Matt Stover's ensuing extra-point kick gave the Ravens their first lead at 20-19 with 12:07 left in the fourth quarter.
On third-and-one from the Ravens' 35-yard line on their next possession, the Ravens chose to throw instead of run the ball and paid the consequences. An overthrown McNair pass went off the outstretched hands of Derrick Mason and in the arms of a diving Geathers, who returned it 30 yards.
Two plays later, Palmer threw a 7-yard touchdown to T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Rudi Johnson ran in the two-point conversion, putting the Bengals back ahead, 27-20, with 8:48 remaining in the game.
Asked why he didn't run the ball on that third down, Billick said, "You anticipate what they're doing and you make the call that makes the best chance of succeeding."
McNair couldn't answer on the next drive, wildly overthrowing Demetrius Williams on third-and-six. It was McNair's last throw because he left with a groin injury.
After Reed recovered a Rudi Johnson fumble at the Bengals' 24, Kyle Boller came in and completed a 14-yard pass to Mason to convert a fourth-and-three.
The Ravens then ran eight plays inside the Bengals' 11-yard line, including six from the 3-yard line or closer. But they couldn't crack the end zone.
The Ravens will address Heap's disputed pass interference penalty with the NFL.
"We'll make the appropriate comments and turn them into the appropriate people and move on to the next game," Billick said.
Lewis, who was injured on his second play but returned to finish the game, and Sams are scheduled to have MRIs today.
McNair, who was injured on the game's first series, and Ogden will be evaluated throughout the week.
And backup tight end Daniel Wilcox has a bad ankle sprain and walked out of the locker room on crutches.
"Our players were dropping right and left, and I am proud of what this team did," Billick said. "To bring that up after a loss sounds a little feeble, but this team will stand together that way. The way we fought through this loss will pay dividends later."