McNair: 'It's just not there'

BALTIMORE -- Steve McNair shook his head in pure frustration and utter disbelief, his eyes revealing despair spawned by another personal meltdown and the Baltimore Ravens' lost season. The story of the Ravens' inexplicable miscues was written all over McNair's battle-worn face.

It was late in the fourth quarter of the Ravens' discouraging 21-7 loss Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals and McNair had been benched in favor of backup Kyle Boller, a move that could become permanent depending on what coach Brian Billick opts to do next after a third consecutive defeat.

With Cincinnati (3-6) capitalizing on six Baltimore turnovers as kicker Shayne Graham booted seven field goals for one shy of Tennessee Titans kicker Rob Bironas' NFL record, the Ravens (4-5) were swept in the annual season series, had an eight-game home winning streak snapped and ended the Bengals' six-game road losing streak.

It was a downcast announced crowd of 71,130 at M&T Bank Stadium although there were plenty of empty seats. The Ravens' slim playoff hopes appear doomed.

And McNair was one of the chief culprits, fumbling twice and being intercepted once for a total of six turnovers in the past six days.

"This is probably the lowest point in my career that I've had over my last two games," said McNair, who has 11 turnovers this season in the form of four interceptions and seven lost fumbles. "What do I need to do about it? I don't know. I'm trying to play hard to help this team, but it's just not there.

"Right now, my turnovers have been killing this team. I don't know what the coaches are going to decide. If they decide to go with Kyle, fine. I'll probably agree with them."

McNair has only thrown two touchdown passes since Dec. 31, 2006, including the playoffs. Afterward, Billick was noncommittal on going forward with McNair as his starter.

"As of right now, yes," Billick said. "Obviously, we'll make all our adjustments going forward."

This is an especially low point for the reigning AFC North champions who haven't won a single division game in four tries after a franchise-record 13-3 campaign a year ago.

Now, the Ravens are potentially facing the dim prospects of playing out the remainder of their ultra-demanding schedule without the relevance of being a viable playoff contender. Pride and job security could be the primary motivating forces.

It's a bitter fall for a team that arrived in Westminster for training camp this summer with Super Bowl aspirations.

"If you would have to come to me when we reported to training camp and said, 'You guys are going to be 0-4 in the division,' I would have bet the house that we wouldn't be," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You know, it's gut-check time. We're going to see who the real men are. It's easy to ride with us and jump on the bandwagon when you're winning and going 13-3, but now we're going to see who the real men are."

When the topic of the playoffs was broached to linebacker Bart Scott, he all but scoffed at the suggestion.

Considering that the Ravens still have to play the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, the undefeated New England Patriots, the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Diego Chargers, Scott's response was understandable.

"We're just trying to win a football game," Scott said.

The worst sequence for Baltimore unfolded at the end of the first half when McNair threatened the Bengals' 6-0 lead with a promising two-minute drill.

Hope evaporated, though, at the Bengals' 2-yard line.

First, McNair missed wide-open tight end Todd Heap in the end zone after wide receiver Mark Clayton set a terrific moving pick on a crossing route with the football skipping across the end zone incomplete.

Then on 3rd-and-1 with 18 seconds remaining in the half, McNair's jump ball to Heap that he got his hands on and was unable to corral was batted by safety Dexter Jackson into the hands of rookie cornerback Leon Hall for a momentum-killing interception.

"It gets harder and harder to stand up here and say, 'We had opportunities,'" wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "People are getting tired of saying, 'We had opportunities.'"

Added Heap: "We just didn't hook up. The guy made a good play on it and got his hand on it. Momentum was lost, but it was still attainable. Obviously, a lot more frustrating things happened in the second half."

McNair's interception began a string of six turnovers in the next seven series.

On the ensuing drive to open the second half, McNair was scrambling upfield when Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe stripped the ball out of his right hand from behind.

This led directly to Graham's fourth field goal. A later fumble where McNair simply dropped the ball while winding up to throw led to another Graham kick.

"You drive the ball down in the two-minute drill and get a tipped-ball interception," said McNair, who was booed constantly. "You come out in the second half, you drive the ball down and a guy comes up from behind you and strips the ball out. Bad luck.

"If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all. .. We've put ourselves in a hole. We've got to find a way to get ourselves out of it."

McNair wasn't alone in miscues that hurt the chances for an injury-riddled secondary to halt the Bengals' explosive offense.

Playing without starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle (undisclosed illness) and Chris McAlister (knee) and losing third cornerback Corey Ivy to a first-half concussion, the Ravens were forced to go with youngsters Willie Gaston playing in his first NFL contest, Ronnie Prude and Derrick Martin, who started his second NFL game.

Although Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer completed 23 of 34 passes for 271 yards, he never got the Bengals into the end zone.

Their efforts were hurt by backup running back Cory Ross muffing a kickoff return in the fourth quarter, awkwardly trying to secure a bouncing ball that eluded him and wound up in the hands of Marvin White. Four plays later, Graham connected on a 21-yard field goal to boost the Bengals' lead to 18-0.

Earlier in the fourth quarter, running back Willis McGahee had the football ripped out of his hand by defensive end Frostee Rucker. That fumble led directly to a 35-yard Graham score.

This time, middle linebacker Ray Lewis didn't point fingers during a brief postgame interview.

"I think we did some good things, but the bottom line is we got to play better as a team," Lewis said.

Boller was inserted with seven minutes and 33 seconds remaining after McNair's final fumble. The once-derided former starter was greeted by cheers, rising in volume when he engineered a touchdown drive keyed by his 47-yard completion to wide receiver Mark Clayton. One play later, McGahee plunged in for a 1-yard touchdown to avert the shutout.

It wasn't anything to really celebrate, though. The Bengals entered the game with the NFL's 31st-ranked defense and had previously allowed 51, 34, 33 and 31 points this season.

"It hurts, it's a tough loss," Boller said. "The defense played unbelievable. We've got to hold up our end of the bargain."

This is the Ravens' first three-game losing streak since the 2005 campaign when they finished 6-10.

Heap acknowledged that playoff hopes are all but dashed. In four division games, Baltimore has lost by a combined margin of 66 points.

"You look at the hill we need to climb this half of the season and how we've been playing of late, we're going to have to get a lot better, quick, to have any chance," Heap said.

Now, the Ravens are left searching for answers to try to avoid falling even further into a dark hole of calamity.

When asked if this is rock bottom, Suggs replied: "No, it's damn close enough. It doesn't feel like rock bottom, it depends on what we do from here on out. If we end up with a top-ten pick, then that's rock bottom. Cut and dry."

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

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