Ravens squander opportunity, lose to Oakland

OAKLAND – Falling, fumbling and faltering, the Baltimore Ravens could hardly believe they squandered a prime opportunity to control their playoff destiny. This 20-12 debacle of a loss Sunday to the Oakland Raiders means Baltimore has absolutely no wiggle room remaining for its final two football games against Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Dropping into a first-place tie in the AFC North with a Cincinnati Bengals team that still holds the tiebreaker edge, the Ravens (8-6) managed to lose in a manner players described as shocking, embarrassing, frustrating and downright ridiculous. The Raiders entered this contest 3-10 overall and were installed as a six-point underdog after losing eight of their last nine games. Yet, the Ravens' haunting penchant for turnovers and penalties contributed heavily to their fourth road loss in a row to snap a three-game winning streak. "We were supposed to come in here and dominate," cornerback Chris McAlister. "I hate to lose to anybody, but to lose to a 3-10 team like that is just ridiculous. "There's nothing we can do but win out and that's not going to guarantee anything. We've got to hope Cincinnati loses. 

Losing this game was probably the worst thing that could have happened to us this season." Almost immediately, the Ravens surrendered control to a once-hapless Raiders team that was without quarterback Rich Gannon and an assortment of other injured starters. The Raiders didn't resemble the unit that flustered coach Bill Callahan so much that he labeled them the dumbest team in America only a few weeks ago.. "It was very disappointing," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We lost an opportunity to create some separation and maintain separation. You can not turn over the ball and do some of the things we did and expect to win in the NFL." 

On the third play of the game, wide receiver Frank Sanders' slip-and-fall on a routine slant pattern allowed cornerback Phillip Buchanon to intercept quarterback Anthony Wright. Buchanon rambled 29 yards to the Ravens' 1. On the ensuing play, fullback Zach Crokett bulled his way into the end zone for a 7-0 lead. Fifty three seconds had ticked off the clock, but Baltimore was already looking like it was way out of its element. "Frank slipped on the route and the ground was kind of wet and the guy undercut it," Wright said. "Those things normally don't happen. A safe play turned into a disastrous play." 

The Ravens' disasters were only just beginning, though. Responding to the Raiders' early touchdown, the Ravens couldn't muster a touchdown. Wright was stuffed for a loss on a quarterback rollout on 3rd-and-2 at the Raiders' 14 so Baltimore had to settle for Matt Stover's 32-yard field goal. The Ravens went just 2-for-12 in third-down situations – 17 percent – for the game. Right after Stover's field goal, Doug Gabriel broke past a Ravens' kickoff team that no longer has coverage ace Adalius Thomas (broken elbow) for a 71-yard jaunt before Ray Walls dragged him down from behind. Oakland turned this miscue into a 37-yard field goal from Sebastian Janikowski

It was only the first quarter and Baltimore already trailed 10-3. "I can't say enough about the fast start that our defense provided," Callahan said. 

Journeyman quarterback Rick Mirer was never sacked and completed 16-of-35 for 186 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a 71.8 rating. He had a 14.6 rating last week in a loss to the Steelers. Another prime chance wasn't capitalized on in the second quarter by Baltimore. Wright threw a perfect spiral to Travis Taylor, who was remarkable consistent Sunday. Taylor caught the 41-yard pass over his shoulder for a diving reception at the Raiders' 13. NFL rushing leader Jamal Lewis finished with a game-high 125 yards on 24 carries, but was stuffed twice on this red-zone trip. Baltimore settled for a 28-yard field goal. 

Later, Stover's streak of 21 consecutive field goals ended when his 50-yard try was a few feet short of the crossbar in the final seconds before halftime. Wright completed only 12 of his 27 passes for 193 yards, a touchdown and a 65.8 quarterback rating. "No, it's not a regression," Wright said. "No, it's not tension. We had a bad game and we just have to move on. It was a tough game. We couldn't cash in." 

Despite his second poor outing in the last two weeks, Billick said Wright will start against the Browns next Sunday in Cleveland over rookie Kyle Boller. "Yes, he's the starter next week," Billick said. "I'm glad I don't play for you all because the first time there's a bump in the road, y'all just [expletive] down your leg don't you?" 

Oakland moved 60 yards in eight plays before halftime, capping the march with a 21-yard scoring pass to future Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice for a 17-6 advantage. With Lewis rambling for 34 yards on two runs after Brightful scooted 28 yards to the Raiders' 49, Wright quickly hit tight end Todd Heap for a 13-yard score in the third quarter to trail 17-12. Then, running back Chester Taylor's 2-point conversion attempt on a draw up the gut was ruled just short of the end zone An instant replay review upheld the call because it was inconclusive whether his knees crossed the goal line before the football broke the plane. However, fullback Alan Ricard missed his block on blitzing linebacker Napoleon Harris on 2nd-and-6 at the Raiders' 27. The sack, forced fumble and recovery and another Janikowski field goal shut the Ravens down for good. "It was perfect timing on his part to shoot the gap, and I totally missed my block," Ricard said. "It was my fault." 

And Baltimore missed its chance to control its own fate. Now, it has to win out and hope for help from the Bengals' final two opponents, St. Louis and Cleveland. "Anytime we give someone early Christmas presents and they capitalize, it's hard to win," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We will not hold our heads down. We're all right, trust me." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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