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As the pieces in the AFC playoff puzzle fell into place yesterday, the Ravens fell apart.
In a game decided by their fumbles and dropped passes, the Ravens let a prime opportunity to make a move in the AFC postseason race slip through their fingers, stumbling early and often in a 37-25 loss to the New Orleans Saints before a sellout crowd at Ravens Stadium.
After learning just before kickoff that the Pittsburgh Steelers had shockingly lost to the expansion Houston Texans, the Ravens came out flat rather than focused. With a chance to close within a half game of the AFC North leaders and take a big step forward in the crowded wild-card hunt, the Ravens (6-7) were undone by seven dropped passes, three fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked punts.
The Ravens fell into third place in the AFC North while remaining 1 1/2 games back of the Steelers with three games remaining.
"We've learned a lot of things this season, but we haven't learned how to take advantage of an opportunity and to play with an upper-echelon team," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's disturbing that we can't raise our level of play right now against the quality teams."
Instead of giving the Saints a fight, the Ravens gave them the game.
Failing for the third time this season to get over that .500 hump, the Ravens had five of their miscues converted into 31 points by New Orleans. The Saints (9-4) only had to march 33 yards or less on five of their seven scoring drives.
New Orleans relied on the running of Deuce McAllister (127 yards rushing and three touchdowns) and the quarterback tandem of Aaron Brooks and Jake Delhomme (226 yards passing) as the Ravens gave up their most points in Billick's four seasons as coach.
"It's frustrating as heck," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "These are the kinds of games where you really define yourself as a team. That's the biggest disappointment. We're still hitting that barrier."
The Ravens dug themselves into a 10-0 hole eight minutes into the game because of mistakes in their territory.
On the Ravens' third offensive play of the game, Blake lost the ball while simply cocking his arm. Blake's sixth fumble in seven starts was recovered by New Orleans at the Ravens' 22-yard line and led to a 34-yard field goal by John Carney.
The next Ravens' series ended in similar embarrassment.
Facing a fourth-and-seven at midfield, Ravens punter Dave Zastudil looked to throw but the intended receiver - Ron Johnson - was covered. Zastudil's rushed attempt to get a punt off hit the back of teammate Bart Scott, giving the Saints the ball at the Ravens' 28.
Ten seconds later, cornerback Gary Baxter bit on Brooks' pump fake and left Donte' Stallworth open for a 28-yard touchdown catch. Needing only to produce 34 yards on two drives, the Saints were given a 10-0 lead just 7:56 into the game.
"My instincts told me not to throw it and I tried to punt it," Zastudil said of his first blocked punt this season. "If I had to go back, maybe I would have thrown it just to try to see if there was pass interference. But clearly, in my mind, it wasn't open."
The Ravens showed some life near the end of the first quarter, marching 75 yards in three plays.
A 31-yard reverse by Travis Taylor and a career-long 43-yard catch by Todd Heap set up Jamal Lewis' 1-yard touchdown run. It cut the deficit to 10-7 with 2:22 remaining in the first quarter.
The momentum was short-lived as the Saints answered with a 12-play drive that ended in a 28-yard field goal by Carney, putting them ahead 13-7 early in the second quarter.
The game unraveled for the Ravens in the final three minutes of the first half.
In a three-play sequence, another punt by Zastudil was blocked, then McAllister fumbled and Lewis gave it right back to New Orleans by fumbling himself. In addition to the turnover, the Ravens ushered the Saints into the end zone, committing 26 yards worth of penalties in a 33-yard drive.
Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister got locked up with Stallworth, ripping off the Saints rookie's helmet and throwing it 10 yards into the end zone; he was flagged for a personal foul. A play later, nose tackle Kelly Gregg was called for a face mask penalty.
McAllister finished the flag-filled possession with a 1-yard run, staking the Saints to a 20-7 lead with 30 seconds left in the first half.
"It's football and it happens," McAlister said of his 11-yard penalty. "Just because it happened on the outside and everybody sees it, they don't see everything that happens in between the lines. I was under control."
The Ravens didn't settle down after halftime as their first two series resulted in an interception by Blake and a fumble by Lewis.
After Lewis' seventh fumble of the season, the Ravens' defense allowed New Orleans to keep the drive alive when Boulware roughed the passer after a third-down incompletion. On the next play, McAllister ran 3 yards untouched into the end zone to extend the lead to 27-7 with 9:06 left in the third quarter.
"I just had a jinxed day," said Lewis, who had just one fumble in his previous five games.
The Ravens got as close as 27-17 when Lewis scored on a 77-yard swing pass late in the third quarter and Matt Stover kicked a 26-yard field goal early in the fourth.
But the Saints answered with a 28-yard field goal by Carney and intercepted Blake to set up a 6-yard run by McAllister, boosting the margin to 37-17 with 2:57 left in the game.
Against his former team, Blake was 18-for-39 for 316 yards and two touchdowns. His performance, though, was marred by two interceptions and a fumble. He didn't get any support from his shaky receivers or Lewis (48 rushing yards).
"Honestly, if we don't make any turnovers, we win this football game," Blake said. "Everything they got, we gave them."
The Ravens, who dropped to 2-6 against winning teams, finish out the season against the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns and Steelers. But by not taking care of business yesterday, the Ravens watched their flickering playoff hopes dim.
"The opportunity was on the table and everything was laying right in front of us and we didn't grab it," Heap said. "I think there is still a shot, although other things have to happen for us. If we can bounce back and get our heads back into it, we've got a shot to go somewhere."