Every time it seemed a victory over a division leader was within the Ravens' grasp, quarterback Kyle Boller put the ball in the hands of the Denver Broncos yesterday.
Boller's three troubling turnovers cost the Ravens in a 12-10 loss to the Broncos at Invesco Field, a ragged setback that causes ripples beyond the team's 10th straight road defeat.
Not only did Boller lose the game, he could have lost the confidence of his teammates as well as his starting job for next season.
In a performance that was equally bumbling and baffling, Boller single-handedly sabotaged an already struggling offense with inexplicably poor throws and decisions. It didn't matter how many times the Ravens marched into Denver territory -- and it felt like they spent most of the game there -- because Boller couldn't stop self-destructing, whether it was two interceptions or the one fumble.
"You can't make those kind of mistakes and beat anybody, let alone a team like that," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He wasn't the only one, but his were obvious and glaring. He tends not to make the same mistakes twice. I hope we don't see those types of mistakes again."
Billick indicated that the final stretch of games would determine Boller's future with the Ravens. In yesterday's game alone, there were three strikes against his returning for a fourth year as the starter.
After falling down in the final minute of the first half, Boller threw an interception in the end zone when the game was tied at 3. In the final minute of the third quarter, he was picked off at the Denver 6-yard line when the Ravens trailed by nine points. And one play after the Broncos fumbled at midfield in the fourth quarter, Boller coughed it up with no one around him.
Boller (23-for-39 for 251 yards) did come back to throw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Mark Clayton with 1:52 left in the game, but even Boller knew that didn't erase perhaps the worst game of his career.
"I can't turn the ball over," said Boller, who has nine interceptions and seven fumbles in six starts this year. "If I could never turn the ball over, I would love it. I'm going to make mistakes. I am human."
In the midst of his string of blunders, Boller would walk over to the sideline, talk to quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel and then stand alone. None of his teammates spoke out against Boller in the locker room, but none offered unwavering support either.
Receiver Derrick Mason, who has assumed the role of offensive leader, offered the most pointed criticism of Boller.
"I'm still behind him, but he knows what he has to do and he knows what he shouldn't do," Mason said. "Kyle is playing hard just like everybody else, but in certain situations, you've got to know what's going on. He showed flashes but it's got to be consistent. There's no more really you can say other than that."
While Boller shouldered most of the blame, the Ravens (4-9) watched their four-game dominance over the Broncos (10-3) come to an excruciating halt because of a multitude of mistakes that began with the opening kickoff.
B.J. Sams couldn't break one last tackle to score on the game's first return. Running back Chester Taylor, who started in place of injured Jamal Lewis (hand), fumbled for the second straight game. Linebacker Tommy Polley dropped an interception at midfield. Safety Ed Reed missed a tackle on a reverse in the fourth quarter that allowed Denver to gain a first down and run out the clock.
"We made enough errors to lose 10 games," Billick said.
Billick himself was not totally blameless.
With the Ravens trailing 12-3, Billick waved back the field-goal team and decided to go for a touchdown at the Broncos' 1-yard line with 9:54 left in the fourth quarter. Taylor was dropped for a 4-yard loss at a time when a field goal could have proved to be the difference in a two-point loss.
"The way the game had gone, I wanted to put it to ... [where] a field goal would have won it," Billick said. "Being down at the 1-yard line, in our circumstances, it was too much to pass up."
The turning point of the game came with 58 seconds left in the first half and the game tied at 3.
On third down at the Denver 24, Boller fell on his dropback (he said he tripped over a teammate) and got back up only to make an off-balanced throw to tight end Todd Heap, who was double-covered in the end zone.
"The one [throw] at the end of the half was ill-advised, to put it kindly," Billick said.
Denver capitalized behind quarterback Jake Plummer. With a Ravens pass rush that was nonexistent all game, Plummer drove quickly down the field with completions of 15, 16, 4 and 15 yards to set up Jason Elam's 48-yard field goal.
"I thought I saw Todd in the end zone," said Boller, one week removed from leading a game-winning drive against Houston. "I just tried to make a play. But I made the play worse."
Taylor had a hand in one of the Ravens' four turnovers, fumbling at the Ravens' 42 in the third quarter. The Broncos used that to extend their lead to 12-3, as Plummer hit fullback Kyle Johnson for a 7-yard touchdown.
On the Ravens' next series, Boller locked onto Heap and was picked off by Champ Bailey at the Denver 6-yard line.
But Boller, who received solid protection behind a makeshift line, wasn't finished. After the Broncos fumbled at midfield in the fourth quarter, Boller lost the ball on the next play, fumbling while trying to tuck the ball away.
"It slipped out of my hand," Boller said. "I can't catch a break, I guess. It slipped out of my hand. I can't give you any other reason."
There were few explanations about the Ravens' ongoing problem in the red zone. The Ravens, who were in Denver territory on seven of 10 drives, scored three points on three trips inside the 10-yard line against the NFL's third-worst red-zone defense.
"We're cursed in the red zone," Heap said. "That's where you win in this league, when you get the ball in there and score points."
In their worst season since their first (1996), the Ravens have clinched their second losing season in Billick's seven seasons and can no longer stomach any more moral victories.
"Honestly, there's nothing you can take out of this game," Mason said. "Yeah, we played hard but what it boils down to is wins and losses. That's what makes a franchise and that's what breaks one."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times