Two minutes and 18 seconds away from their statement game, the Ravens fell silent yesterday.
Losing control on defense and lacking discipline on offense, the Ravens took a two-fisted blow to the gut from the Cleveland Browns in a 14-13 loss, virtually knocking themselves out of the playoffs before a hushed crowd of 69,348 at Ravens Stadium.
With their postseason hopes on the line, the Ravens surrendered an improbable eight-play, 92-yard touchdown drive to a Browns team without any timeouts. Tim Couch's 1-yard scoring pass to a wide-open Mark Campbell with 29 seconds left doomed the Ravens in a game they had led for 34 straight minutes.
The loss - the Ravens' first when leading entering the fourth quarter - had linebacker Peter Boulware muttering "too easy" as he walked off the field and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogdencursing loudly in the locker room.
"I'm really speechless about it," cornerback Gary Baxtersaid. "You could feel our playoff drive just go down the drain."
The Ravens (7-8) actually still have faint playoff chances.
Thanks to the New York Jets beating the New England Patriots last night, the Ravens could qualify for a wild-card spot if they beat Pittsburgh on Sunday and six other AFC teams (Patriots, Jets, Browns, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers) all lose next weekend. If the Patriots had won last night, the Ravens would have been eliminated.
Before the late game, the Ravens could only question themselves on their fourth-quarter effort against an AFC North rival.
"This is very devastating," quarterback Jeff Blakesaid. "It was a great opportunity to prove something to a lot of people, and we were so close."
The dramatic collapse caught the Ravens off-guard because they had won five games this season by shutting down the opposition on the final drive and had limited the Browns to 82 yards on 36 plays after the opening series.
But the Browns didn't blink with 2:18 remaining, moving the ball from their 8-yard line to near midfield in a matter of three pass completions. Cleveland then kicked into gear on poor pursuit by the Ravens' defense and poor judgment by cornerback Chris McAlister.
Couch completed a short pass over the middle to running back Jamel White, who ran free for 20 yards on a 28-yard catch because the Ravens failed to close in and tackle him in their soft zone. To make matters worse, McAlister shoved White, who was already a few yards out of bounds, to draw a 14-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.
The drive's biggest play - which totaled 42 yards - ushered Cleveland from its own 45 to the Ravens' 13 with 1:26 left in the game.
McAlister rushed past reporters in the locker room without saying a word. "You've got to be smart," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's unfortunate to do that at that time."
After a 12-yard pass to Kevin Johnson got the Browns to the 1-yard line, running back William Green got stuffed at the goal line for no gain.
Couch, who was 6-for-7 for 78 yards on the final drive, then rolled to his right and connected with an unmarked Campbell for the 1-yard touchdown capping a length-of-the-field drive in 1:49. Dropping back in coverage, defensive end Adalius Thomashad man-to-man coverage on Campbell but lost him on a gamble, trying to jump on a corner route.
"I took my eyes off my man," Thomas said. "It was my man, my fault."
The Ravens got the ball back at their own 16 with 24 seconds remaining, but their methodical offense couldn't come up with big plays.
Blake, who completed just six passes for 62 yards in the second half, threw an incompletion to Chester Taylor and then was picked off on a pass that deflected off tight end Todd Heap. Cleveland ran off the final six seconds to seal its third win in the four-year series vs. the Ravens.
"We should have won," said Jamal Lewis, who rushed for 100 yards on 21 carries. "We dominated up to that point. We let it play into their hands."
The Ravens' meltdown began with just under three minutes left in the game and their offense driving down the field.
On a third-and-seven at the Cleveland 40-yard line, the Ravens handed the ball off to Lewis, and coaches stressed to him about the importance of staying in bounds. Lewis, however, said he couldn't stay in the field of play because he got grabbed by the face mask by safety Robert Griffith and got pushed to the sidelines, stopping the clock at 2:31.
Instead of running the time close to the two-minute warning, the Ravens had to punt the ball away and give Cleveland possession with 2:18 remaining.
"Nothing I can do about that," Lewis said. "If that made a difference in the game, what can I say?"
Billick refused to second-guess running the ball on third down rather than passing. He also said kicking a 52-yard field goal before the Browns' game-winning drive was out of the question.
"The way the wind was blowing, it would have had to been close to the 20-yard line," said Billick, whose offense stalled at the 35. "How many situations have we been in where a team has had to drive the length of the field to beat us? The way our defense played all game long, the odds were in our favor."
Delivering the unlikely upset was much sweeter for the Browns (8-7) because they remained in the playoff hunt at the expense of Ravens owner Art Modell, who moved his franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore before the 1996 season.
"This was for the fans - they hate the Ravens," Cleveland receiver Quincy Morgan said. "And the Browns, we got bad blood with the Ravens, too. Being able to knock them out, that's the best thing. Merry Christmas to the Ravens."
The Ravens dictated the tempo after the Browns scored a touchdown on the opening series, responding with marathon scoring drives of 53 and 84 yards. They seized a 10-7 lead with 4 1/2 minutes left in the first half on Travis Taylor's 17-yard touchdown catch.
The Ravens extended their lead with the help of Cleveland in the form of an interception and a third-down penalty.
Couch threw into triple coverage down the seam, where safety Anthony Mitchell picked off the pass at the Ravens' 37. The interception was the Ravens' 23rd, tying the team record set during the Super Bowl season.
After a couple of incompletions, the Ravens had their drive extended when Browns cornerback Corey Fuller was flagged for pass interference. The 15-yard penalty and an 8-yard pass to Heap moved them in range for Stover. His 43-yard field goal staked the Ravens to a 13-7 lead with 5:03 left in the third quarter.
But in the end, it was the Ravens' mistakes that cost them the game, and perhaps, the playoffs.
"This is what a playoff loss feels like," Billick said. "It's a painful lesson but a lesson nonetheless and we'll try to draw anything we can from it."
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