Ravens fumble away opener

CINCINNATI -- Months of plotting and promises of offensive improvement went disastrously awry for the Baltimore Ravens, vanishing as rapidly as they could litter the ground with fumbles as six turnovers ultimately doomed their cause. Instead of an anticipated breakthrough or a dramatic comeback against a rival, the Ravens' backfield behaved as if it was bizarrely practicing the fumblerooskie.

The offense was far too inept to rescue as quarterback Steve McNair committed four turnovers with three fumbles and one interception. The reigning AFC North champions couldn't overcome all the self-inflicted blows as they launched the season with a loud backfire in a 27-20 loss to the Bengals on Monday night before 66,093 at Paul Brown Stadium.

"I've got to take responsibility for this one," McNair said after completing 20 of 34 passes for 203 yards. "It's unacceptable. It's uncalled for, and that starts with me. I've got to protect the ball in some way, shape or form to give my team a chance."

Backup quarterback Kyle Boller was unable to lead the Ravens all the way back when McNair injured his groin in the second half despite driving Baltimore to the 1-yard line in the final seconds.

A questionable offensive pass interference penalty on tight end Todd Heap nullified his catch in the end zone. Boller threw too high on a pass intended for rookie fullback Le'Ron McClain. Then, Boller's final errant pass deflected off Heap's shoulder and was intercepted in the end zone by defensive lineman Michael Myers on a diving catch to seal the game.

"I was stunned," Heap said when asked about the penalty. "It's tough to have a call like that in that situation. I'm not calling the game, and you have to go by what they call."

Boller completed 2 of 6 passes for 19 yards.

"As a backup quarterback, you never know when you're going to have a chance to go in there and play, so have to be ready to go out there and make plays," Boller said. "I need to put that ball a little bit lower to Todd. It's tough to lose when you're right there.

"It was a really weird game. One thing happens and then another. It makes it tough to win games in this league."

Meanwhile, it was a nightmare scenario for McNair, who lost his grip following a hit from behind by Robert Geathers, which popped the football into the waiting hands of linebacker Landon Johnson for a pivotal third-quarter touchdown.

Nine months after McNair melted down with two crucial interceptions in a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, he struggled again in a high-profile encounter and tied a team record for most fumbles in a game shared by Boller and six others.

It marked the fourth consecutive prime-time loss for Baltimore (0-1), which has a lot of damage to repair between now and Sunday's home opener against the New York Jets. This also represents the Bengals' fifth win over Baltimore in the last six meetings.

"The story of the game is that you can't turn the ball over on the road in the opening game of the season and expect to win," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I don't know what you tell a guy like Steve McNair. I am open to suggestions. He has been playing this game a long time and won many football games."

Shortly after safety Ed Reed scooted 63 yards for a touchdown on a punt return to briefly grant the Ravens (0-1) a 20-19 lead in the fourth quarter, the turnover bug struck again.

McNair's deflected pass intended for Derrick Mason was intercepted by Geathers, and Billick's instant-replay review of whether the football hit the ground.

A few plays later, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer connected with wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a game-winning touchdown pass from seven yards out.

Palmer completed 20 of 32 passes for 194 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 100.3 quarterback rating.

"I take my hat off to those guys because they fought hard," Reed said. "We just have to correct our mistakes and move forward."

In a close call on a two-point conversion attempt, Reed was flagged for personal interference on an incomplete pass to Chad Johnson. On the ensuing try, running back Rudi Johnson dashed outside for a 27-20 lead.

"We know it's going to be a hard-fought game when we play these guys, tough, physical," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "It's important to win the physical football games because you put so much into it."

Johnson and Houshmandzadeh combined for 14 receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns.

Including a botched exchange between McNair and new franchise running back Willis McGahee, rookie fullback LeRon McClain being stripped of the football on his first NFL catch and another McNair fumble, the Ravens lost four of five fumbles.

Three were attributed directly to McNair, a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, whose final miscue occurred when Geathers struck him from behind.

"On the last third-down throw, you could see that Steve could not push off his back leg," Billick said. "On that final throw he made, the ball got away from him. After the initial pull, I could tell he could not get the ball off like he should be able to."

It wasn't long before offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden was limping off the field following an aborted attempt to return from a hyperextended left big toe that has plagued him since late last season, and All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis' right arm was heavily bandaged after hurting his triceps on a tackle of T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Lewis played in pain throughout the game, gritting it out despite a triceps injury he described as torn and team officials said was merely pulled. He will undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam today, according to team officials.

Ogden left the game during the first quarter after aggravating his toe injury. Adam Terry shifted over from the right side to his natural left tackle spot, and rookie Marshal Yanda was inserted at right tackle.

Ogden left the stadium without commenting on the severity of his injury, but is expected to undergo an MRI today. Team officials didn't elaborate on how serious it is.

"We'll just have to wait and see," team spokesman Kevin Byrne said.

Also, tight end Daniel Wilcox sprained his right ankle and was on crutches in the locker room following the game.

Return specialist B.J. Sams suffered a significant knee injury and will undergo an MRI exam today.

In his regular-season debut with the Ravens, McGahee, a former Pro Bowl runner acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Bills, rushed for 77 yards on 19 carries.

"It wasn't enough, I didn't do enough," McGahee said. "I'm not pointing the finger at nobody. Cincinnati is a great team. They capitalized on our mistakes."

Perhaps the most troubling instance was a botched assignment during the first quarter that left lumbering strong safety Dawan Landry matched by himself against Johnson, an All-Pro wideout.

Johnson scooted into the end zone, easily cutting outside of Landry to catch a 39-yard touchdown pass in stride for a 6-0 lead with defensive lineman Dwan Edwards blocking the extra point try.

Johnson followed through on his promise to show off, donning a yellow, faux Hall of Fame jacket that proclaimed his belief that he'll eventually be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

It wasn't the first time Johnson would victimize the secondary, catching five passes in the first half for 95 yards.

"I told you I would give you a show," Johnson said.

The score ensued immediately after a fumble by McNair on a sack by middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks with Geathers recovering.

The turnover bug wasn't done plaguing the Ravens, though.

Another costly mistake was committed by McClain, who lost the ball while fighting for extra yardage when he was popped by linebacker LeMar Marshall with the turnover picked up by safety Madieu Williams.

That led to a 23-yard field goal by kicker Shayne Graham for a 9-0 lead.

Then, the Ravens woke up from their slumber as they received a significant spark from backup running back Musa Smith, who was allotted extra playing time with Mike Anderson not attending the game due to personal reasons.

Smith rumbled upfield off left guard Jason Brown's block for 17 yards. McNair connected with wide receiver Demetrius Williams for 19 more.

And Smith was practically untouched on a six-yard touchdown up the middle with a large path cleared by Brown's isolation block on linebacker Anthony Schlegel to get Baltimore on the scoreboard and within 9-7.

His touchdown capped an eight-play, 88-yard drive that took 4 minutes and 38 seconds off the clock.

Graham answered with a 40-yard field goal with 1:07 remaining in the first half. The drive was aided by beginning the drive at the Ravens' 28-yard line due to a 15-yard personal foul penalty on tight end Daniel Wilcox on a late hit during the punt return.

Matt Stover connected on a 36-yard field goal with six seconds remaining in the half to cut the Bengals' lead to 12-10. The score was set up by a 47-yard kickoff return by B.J. Sams, who eclipsed Jermaine Lewis' career record for kickoff return yardage.

Sams suffered a significant knee injury and will undergo an MRI, according to team officials.

Under heavy pressure from Geathers, McNair was hit from behind and the football caromed directly to Johnson as he scooted 34 yards for an insurance touchdown with 8:57 remaining in the third quarter.

Down nine points to start the fourth quarter, Baltimore had a disjointed sequence in the red zone that ended with McNair throwing incomplete into heavy traffic to Mark Clayton.

The Ravens had to settle for a 23-yard Stover field goal.

The squandered opportunity was a microcosm of an extremely long, costly night for the Ravens.

"The guys really fought back." Billick said. I am proud of what this team did. To bring that up after a loss, it sounds a little feeble, but this team will stand together that way. The way we fought back through this loss will pay dividends later on."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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