By failing in attempt to clinch, Ravens learn nothing's a cinch

Ravens Gameday

Bengals 13 Ravens 7

December 01, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

CINCINNATI — CINCINNATI-- --To the Ravens' credit, they never promoted themselves as being more than they were. A victory last night would have made them 10-2, would have crowned them division champions before December began, given them six wins in a row, created an aura of invincibility.

But the Ravens knew better, so they never took the bait during the short week leading up to last night. Now, they can be cut a little slack. They mostly got manhandled by the Cincinnati Bengals in muggy, wet Paul Brown Stadium, but not much separates the loss from being a win. Just like not much separated most of the wins from being losses.

Shuffle a play here and there, give or take an opportunity one week or another, and this team might be scuffling with the Bengals for a wild-card spot, or the AFC North lead, instead of closing in on the title and talking out loud about home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Pick a play, or a blown chance or twist of fate, from anywhere in last night's 13-7 loss. For Ray Lewis, it was the Bengals' flea-flicker touchdown early in the second half. "We take pride in not giving up touchdowns on our defense," he said afterward, "and if you look at the difference of this game, bottom line, it was a touchdown. You look at the last game [against the Bengals, last month in Baltimore], the difference of the game was a touchdown."

Not bad. You also can nominate the missed field-goal attempt off the bad snap at the end of the first half, when the Bengals were up just 6-0. Or, try the spike on third-and-one at the 11, just before the field-goal try, when another shot at the first down or a touchdown, even with no timeouts left (which is another story), was possible.

On that, even Steve McNair said, "You can look at it both ways."

As for McNair, on one of his less-than-magical nights, he'd take back a number of his throws, many of which hit the Bengals' defensive backs right in the hands, again. And he'd take back at least one of his decisions, the intentional grounding in the third quarter that brought a drive to a halt.

Nothing on offense was clicking. The phrase of the night in the visiting locker room: "We couldn't get into a rhythm." For five victorious weeks, it had seemed that those problems were over. For one game, Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it seemed as if there never had been a problem. Last night proved that those problems are never far away.

"We've had games that have gone like that in the past, where we couldn't get it going, couldn't get a rhythm, and somewhere along the way we'd find it," Todd Heap said. "[This time] we never found it. We never got in the groove where we were consistent."

Finally, if nothing else reminded them and everyone else of how thin their margin of success is, the sight of B.J. Sams being carted off the field in the second quarter, and then limping out of the locker room on crutches, did the job. Broken right leg.

In a game this close all night, in which the Bengals never seemed capable of pulling away, could Sams have made a big kickoff or punt return in the second half? Maybe. Would he have muffed the punt with less than four minutes left that cost the Ravens another shot at closing the gap, as Corey Ivy did? Maybe not.

As for the defensive performance that Lewis said "kind of disturbed" him, it was inevitable that it would fall off a little after the domination against the Steelers. After all, it couldn't "pin its ears back" with the offense having been shut out nearly the whole game.

But to go from nine sacks against a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and the line that protected him, to barely laying a finger on Carson Palmer for much of the night, against a completely ravaged line that was playing its third-string center by the second half - no, that wasn't inevitable.

By now, of course, it's too late to classify a 9-3 team running away with its division as lucky, or living on the edge. But this game made it clear that the Ravens need a lot going right every week to maintain this run to the playoffs.

Because their flaws come to the surface way too quickly and easily sometimes - like last night.

At least there was good news that came out of a game played on a Thursday: The Ravens have nine days to rest. The bad news is that they also have nine days to think about that thin margin of error, and how much thinner it is without Sams, who is out for the season.

And they get to think about their next game being in Kansas City, no easier a spot to win than Cincinnati.

They can, at least, remind themselves that they still pretty much have the division locked up. As they pointed out often last night, they control their destiny.

But this game showed them in graphic detail that that's all they have locked up. The rest could slip away really fast. Yesterday's clinching celebration sure did.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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