Ravens squander lead in 27-26 loss

BALTIMORE -- Inside a somber locker room filled with angst, anger and anxiety after a loss that seriously endangers their postseason aspirations, the Baltimore Ravens dissected their epic defensive meltdown.

Bottom line: The Ravens' star-filled, expensive secondary was absolutely shredded by the Cincinnati Bengals' passing game as they squandered a 17-point advantage and were dealt a 27-26 loss on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer tore apart Baltimore's fourth-ranked pass defense for a career-high 382 yards with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati scored 24 points in the fourth quarter, the most the Ravens (7-5) have surrendered in team history.

"The truth was out there on the field," veteran Baltimore cornerback Corey Fuller said after Cincinnati (6-6) answered Matt Stover's 45-yard field goal with 1:44 remaining with Shayne Graham's game-winning kick as the clock expired. "They killed us. What is there to discuss?"

The loss represents the team's first to the Bengals at home since 1996 and means Baltimore likely needs to win its remaining four games to be assured of a wild-card berth in the ultra-competitive AFC.

Because of the Denver Broncos' loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens remain tied for the sixth and final AFC wild-card spot. They're two games behind the New York Jets and likely need to defeat the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers on the road as well as win home games against the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins to gain a toehold in the postseason.

"We have left ourselves in a very vulnerable situation," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "We don't lie down. We're going to come out fighting. We can't point fingers at each other."

It marked the first time a Brian Billick team had managed to lose in 36 games with a two-touchdown lead. It's also the first loss this season in six games where safety Ed Reed has intercepted a pass.

"Just can't make that many mistakes, can't leave yourselves vulnerable when you get up that way and we did in a number of different ways, both physically and mentally, and now we've put ourselves in a situation," Billick said. "We've got a real uphill climb."

This is the first win by the Bengals on the road against a team with a winning mark in 42 games, an ugly streak that dated back to a Dec.1990 win over the Steelers.

"It's like a bad dream," offensive guard Bennie Anderson said.

But it happened, every excruciating misstep in the final moments.

The Bengals scored on four consecutive possessions after falling behind 20-3, and Palmer engineered a superb two-minute drill to set up Graham's clinching field goal.

Even with backup running back Chester Taylor gaining a career-high 139 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in place of injured starter Jamal Lewis, the Ravens couldn't capitalize. They converted only one of four red-zone opportunities, and Stover kicked four field goals.

And the NFL's fourth-ranked defense allowed 453 yards of total offense and an average of 9.1 yards per passing attempt.

"It shouldn't happen, it shouldn't happen at home," Billick said of losing the lead. "It's across the board. This team can play better than that, and it didn't. There's more we needed to do to win, could have put this game away and we did not."

Palmer completed 80.6 percent of his passes, including two spikes at the end, as he completed 29 of 36 attempts for a 127.1 passer rating. "It would be nice to say it was one thing, but it wasn't," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "We busted coverages. We just can't do that. We played poorly and not just in one area. I'm certainly surprised.

"There wasn't any panic. It's not, 'Oh my God, we've never been in that situation,' because we've been in that situation a lot. I know we played poorly and that's the disappointment. It's certainly got my attention, yes."

The momentum shifted dramatically following rookie B.J. Sams fumbling a punt away at the end of the third quarter at the Baltimore 19. Two plays later, Chad Johnson caught a 13-yard pass for a touchdown to begin the comeback.

"It's definitely hard to take," Sams said. "I feel like if that wouldn't have happened, we wouldn't have lost the game. I gave them the momentum."

Palmer continually targeted Baxter and Chris McAlister, isolating them in single coverage against Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh for 10 receptions apiece for 161 and 171 yards and two and one touchdowns, respectively.

Afterward, all of the starting defensive backs addressed the breakdowns except for McAlister, who left the stadium without commenting.

"As you can see, it's kind of quiet in here," safety Will Demps said. "It just happened so fast. You have to hand it to Cincinnati. They had a game plan and came out and executed it."

Houshmandzadeh spun away from Baxter on a 9-yard touchdown catch, punctuating the score with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with a flying chest bump with Johnson, the demonstrative Pro Bowl selection.

"I told the offensive line to keep playing the way they were, we weren't going home without this win and I was dead serious," Johnson said.

He added that the victory had a special meaning for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis as it was his first in Baltimore against the team whose once dominant defense he coached to a Super Bowl title.

"It was important to do this against a division team and to exorcise another demon here today," Marvin Lewis said.

Johnson continually picked on McAlister, including a 51-yard reception and the two touchdown catches.

McAlister was often left flat-footed and flailing, and the communication between the cornerbacks and the safeties wasn't up to the usual standards.

"We didn't break down," Reed said. "They made plays."

After Reed fumbled following his seventh interception of the season while handling the football with one hand, McAlister rambled 64 yards for a touchdown to stake Baltimore to a 20-3 lead.

Eventually, though, Palmer drove Cincinnati 60 yards in seven plays for the winning kick, including 32-yard and 22-yard completions to Houshmandzadeh and Johnson.

Quarterback Kyle Boller completed 19 of 33 passes for 172 yards, but was no match for Palmer's staggering output and accuracy.

On a day where the secondary faltered, linebacker Ray Lewis, the team's unquestioned leader, expressed frustration with teammates without specifically naming culprits.

"I think it's a gut check for anybody who didn't put his heart in this game, period," Lewis said. "If you walk on a football field, there's two things you're going to do. Either you're going to watch it or you're going to play it. When you're talking about a team concept, team only exists by simply every man doing their job. "So when they understand that, that's their gut check. It's hard for me to keep speaking for everybody. Now, whoever's accountable for the gut check, tell them to gut check themselves because I'm just coming to work to get ready to play the Giants."

Aaron Wilson is the chief writer for RavensInsider.Com He is also the Ravens' reporter for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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