Good luck can't overcome bad execution

Ravens Gameday

Panthers 23 Ravens 21

October 16, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

They've been living on borrowed time all season anyway, so you had to figure that the Ravens' luck was due to run out yesterday afternoon. Yet they managed to stretch their good fortune out until the last possible second, making the Carolina Panthers sweat out their victory at M&T Bank Stadium.

And even then, the Ravens got one more break after they had trudged off the field with a dispiriting 23-21 home loss that didn't deserve to be as close as it was. Their chief rivals in the AFC North, the Cincinnati Bengals, inexplicably lost to the winless Buccaneers in Tampa, on a touchdown in the final minute.

The Ravens must be living right. Maybe it's the high school uniforms and the new field they bought, or they're staying home on Saturday nights lighting candles. Something is swinging the mojo their way.

When the breaks went their way the first four weeks, the players acknowledged that the ends excused the means. They just got flat-out beaten in Denver, but yesterday they literally had footballs falling from the sky into their hands, and couldn't capitalize.

This loss was harder for them to dissect and explain.

"I guess that's the way the ball bounces," wide receiver Derrick Mason said with a big sigh, hardly the only one heard in the home locker room yesterday. "They gave us every opportunity to win the game, and it just didn't go our way."

Face it, though: A game like this for the Ravens was overdue.

They should be paying a much higher price for having an offense that has lurched and sputtered and belched smoke all season and kept on doing it for most of yesterday. Also for getting their ineffective starting quarterback knocked out and resting all their hopes on their deposed former starter.

And for responding to every turnover the defense forced by turning it over on the very next possession - they were 3-for-3 yesterday. As well as immediately following their biggest play of the day on offense by giving up the biggest on defense.

And for having a pass into the end zone to a receiver bracketed by two defenders batted in the air and another deflected at the line of scrimmage. Of course, you saw how that turned out - two touchdowns. Kyle Boller and Mark Clayton should spend the open week down at the Royal Farms buying lottery tickets.

"God has a strange way of drawing things up," Clayton said afterward. Not that the offensive coordinator job is open, but if He wants to start calling plays ...

In the other locker room, safety Mike Minter put a different spin on the blessed bounces: "You take away the tipped balls, and it's going to be a pretty bad day for their offense."

Yet what eventually ended the Ravens' run was, of all things, a colossal late-game mental lapse on defense: Steve Smith's 72-yard catch-and-run - past Samari Rolle and through where Ed Reed was supposed to be - right after the second Clayton ricochet play, the 62-yard touchdown that made things interesting.

But even after all that, after losing two in a row and taking the steam out of their 4-0 start, the Ravens are still in first place and comfortably in the playoff mix at the bye week.

They also are two Steve McNair fourth-quarter miracles from being 2-4 and having the Brian Billick Watch in full swing.

The 4-2 record is all that matters. Oh, the schedule matters, too: McNair gets two weeks to recover from the beating he took for most of the first quarter.

He'll be back, although at this point how encouraged everybody should feel about that is up for debate. Those comebacks over Cleveland and San Diego suddenly seem eons ago. When he was helped off the field yesterday and Boller came in, the record crowd cheered. The honeymoon appears over.

With McNair at the controls, the offense looked as bad as it had in Denver. With Boller, it looked, well, as if it needed a couple of lucky bounces. Yet even those bounces couldn't mask everything.

"We get a couple of plays here, and then a setback there, then another play here and another setback there," tight end Todd Heap said. "You get a bunch of those setbacks ... and they're hard to overcome."

He and his teammates have said the same thing every week, regardless of the opponent, quarterback or result.

Now, this week, add on top of that the defensive gaffes. Most of the day, they stuffed the Panthers, particularly on that first-quarter goal-line stand, which was aided by some painfully conservative Carolina play-calling. The few mistakes they made just happened to be game-altering ones.

It was as if this time, the Ravens couldn't avoid losing no matter what.

As perplexed as they were by the events of yesterday, the players and coaches should spend their week off exhaling. It could be - should be - a whole lot worse. david.steele@baltsun.com

Sputtering

Even with a late offensive flurry, the Ravens again failed to crack 300 yards of offense. They have been held below 300 yards in five of their six games:

Date ..... Opponent Yards

9-10 ... @Tampa Bay 271

9-17 ... Oakland 264

9-24 ... @Cleveland 340

10-1 ... San Diego 206

10-9 ... @Denver 257

10-15 ... Carolina 292

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