CINCINNATI - A month ago, Ravens coach Brian Billick sent Marvin Lewis a bottle of wine in recognition of his first win as the Cincinnati Bengals' coach.
Yesterday, the Ravens clumsily hand-delivered another gift to their former defensive coordinator.
Before a scattered crowd of 53,553 at Paul Brown Stadium, the Ravens' 34-26 loss to Cincinnati was wrapped in fumbles, penalties and costly mistakes in the secondary.
The Ravens gave away 17 points on three turnovers by rookie quarterback Kyle Boller - two fumbles and one interception - and served up another touchdown when the ball ricocheted off safety Ed Reed's shoulder and into the waiting hands of receiver Chad Johnson.
The one thing the Ravens (3-3) held onto yesterday was first place in the AFC North, the only division without a winning record.
"That just shows when you hand the ball over, the other team is going to take it right to you and stick it right back in your face," tight end Todd Heap said. "No team can do that and be successful. We shot ourselves in the foot. We didn't take care of what we needed to."
Although the Ravens avoided a rout with two late touchdowns, the game was essentially lost in the first half. After an opening drive in which the Ravens authoritatively marched into the end zone, they tripped over themselves as the Bengals scored 27 straight points.
Boller fumbled the first time midway through the first quarter, when he lost the handle on the ball after hitting fullback Alan Ricard on a casual play fake. Three plays later, Cincinnati tight end Matt Schobel beat linebacker Adalius Thomas down the middle for a 45-yard touchdown catch to tie the game at 7.
On the Ravens' next drive, Boller coughed the ball up again, losing it after getting sacked from behind at his own 15-yard line. Four plays later, Bengals running back Corey Dillon gashed the middle of the defense for a 2-yard touchdown.
In a span of 3 1/2 minutes, two fumbles led to two touchdowns and a 14-7 deficit.
"I don't know if there was grease on the ball, a couple of times it just popped right out of my hand," Boller said. "I put my team in a bad situation there. When you have those kind of turnovers, especially where they were, you can't expect to win. We can't beat ourselves."
The Ravens' self-destruction quickly spread to the defense.
On the second play of the second quarter, Reed - one of three defenders around Bengals receiver Johnson - was in perfect position to intercept an underthrown pass. But the ball deflected off Reed's right shoulder pad and fell to Johnson, who caught it waist-high and raced for an 82-yard touchdown reception, the longest allowed by the Ravens this season.
"I thought I had it and it went through my hands,'' Reed said. "It was a lucky bounce. When it goes bad, it goes bad."
Bad turned into worse later in the second quarter when Boller threw behind receiver Frank Sanders and was picked off. This time, the Bengals only converted a mistake into a field goal and went into halftime with a 24-7 lead.
The Ravens went into halftime searching for their true identity.
Boller had previously been careful with the ball, losing one fumble in five starts. Reed had been the top playmaker of the defense. And the Ravens had been disciplined before committing a season-high 13 penalties (one off the franchise record) for 113 yards.
"We'll regroup and correct those things we can," Billick said. "Some of it is just - phew - I hope that doesn't happen again and move on to the next one."
The Bengals (2-4), who scored their most points in 27 games at Paul Brown Stadium, expanded their advantage to 34-10 on drives of 72 and 83 yards.
To sidestep embarrassment, Boller threw 162 of his 302 yards passing in the fourth quarter as the Ravens made a last-ditch comeback attempt. Two touchdowns - a 73-yard pass to Travis Taylor and a 2-yard run by Chester Taylor - along with a couple of two-point conversions allowed the Ravens to pull within eight points with 1:16 left in the game.
The Ravens' desperation onside kick was tapped out of bounds by the Bengals' Peter Warrick and out of any Raven's grasp, a fitting ending for the visitors' sloppiest game of the season.
"It stings," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "The thing that hurts the most is when you know you could have won and should have won. When we look at this film, we're going to see a lot of mistakes."
Most of the critical mistakes were made by Boller, but the Ravens strongly defended their rookie quarterback.
"I'll live and die with my rookie quarterback," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "I don't care how many turnovers our offense has. What he showed me in that fourth quarter sets us up for November and December when the playoffs come around. He is a warrior and is going to fight."
As the game wound down, Boulware and Lewis ran to the opposing sideline to give a handshake to Marvin Lewis, their former mentor. Marvin Lewis, though, downplayed any additional emotional ties to the win.
"I've got a job to do, they've got a job to do," the Bengals coach said. "I love them all, but we're competing against them."
Billick followed suit by passing on any sentiment.
"Forgive me if I'm not popping champagne bottles for him," Billick said. "At the appropriate time, that's one where you say, 'Good job.'"
The mood remained grim in the locker room, where the Ravens waited to learn the status of Boller. He had his left shoulder driven into the ground by the Bengals' Justin Smith with 1:20 left in the game.
After the X-rays revealed no damage, Boller said he will be able to start Sunday against Denver with what was described as a mildly sprained shoulder.
"I'll be ready for next week,'' Boller said. ""But I would be lying if I said it wasn't sore."
The news was just as optimistic for Jamal Lewis, the league's leading rusher who didn't play the final four plays with a sore shoulder. The injury was originally suffered last week at Arizona.
"The shoulder is good,'' said Lewis, who cracked 100 yards for the fifth straight game, rushing for 101 on 19 carries. "I take a pounding and I got to deliver blows and keep it going. It's no problem. It's one of those nagging injuries."
The Ravens can only hope that the mistakes won't be as lingering.
Leading the division by a half game over the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens return home for games against the Broncos and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"This game was a wake-up call for us," Reed said. "Regardless of the mistakes, they capitalized on them. We know what we did wrong. It's not the end of the world."
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