BALTIMORE — Trudging up the tunnel toward the locker room Sunday afternoon after the Baltimore Ravens squandered a lead and relinquished their share of first place, Ed Reed shook his head in absolute disgust.
Minutes later while knotting his tie, Reed muttered to himself, "Ridiculous, ridiculous. I’ve got nothing good to say."
It was an understandable reaction following the Ravens’ shocking 17-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium as quarterback Carson Palmer connected with wide receiver Andre Caldwell in stride for a 20-yard game-winning touchdown pass with 22 seconds remaining.
The decisive score capped an 80-yard drive fueled by three Baltimore penalties.
The Ravens (3-2) lost their second consecutive game and are now tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2) for second place in the AFC North behind the Bengals (4-1), who broke a first-place deadlock with Baltimore.
"We’ve got to play all-around better football, this one stinks," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "This one hurt. Not only that we lost, but how we lost. That’s disgusting. That sucks. That stinks. That’s terrible."
One week after a loss to the New England Patriots where they were flagged twice for roughing the passer calls that led to a pair of touchdowns, the Ravens took issue with the officiating and even greater issue with their own shortcomings as they allowed 403 yards of total offense and scored just one offensive touchdown.
And the Ravens notably allowed Bengals running back Cedric Benson to grind out 127 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries as he became the first player in 40 games to eclipse the century mark against the NFL’s top-ranked rushing defense.
"We didn’t play well enough to win," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We didn’t play well enough in any of the three phases to win. We didn’t finish and find a way to win. We all understand that."
On that final drive, though, the Ravens did hurt their own cause significantly due to penalty infractions.
First, Chris Carr committed an illegal contact penalty.
Then, middle linebacker Ray Lewis was flagged for unnecessary roughness for headhunting as he bashed into wide receiver Chad Ochocinco’s helmet despite the fact that the football was sailing well out of his grasp. Lewis hit Ochocinco so hard that he knocked off his helmet.
“It was a good hit, but I think he should have just pushed me down instead of hitting me, because I was in mid-air and I had no way of protecting myself,” Ochocinco said. “But it was a good play by him.”
Lewis wasn’t in the locker room after the game and didn’t conduct interviews.
And cornerback Frank Walker was flagged for pass interference on 3rd-and-16 as he was draped all over Ochocinco, appearing to arrive early when he broke on the pass.
Walker claimed that he only touched the ball, not the Bengals’ flamboyant wide receiver. The play was technically called on Reed, but it was Walker’s penalty.
"I felt like I went around him and batted the ball down, but we haven’t watched film yet so I could be inaccurate," Walker said. "I’m pretty sure that I batted the ball down around him because I really didn’t think he was going to throw the ball because he was covered and everything.
"The officials, they’re just calling the game. These games are close because we let them be close."
On the touchdown to Caldwell, Carr had coverage at the line of scrimmage and fell down as they wrestled for position.
Carr claimed that Caldwell should have been flagged.
"I jammed him, and he grabbed my facemask and threw me down and that was the play," Carr said. "I’m not going to say anything about the officiating. Watch the play and make up your own mind."
Added Suggs: “It really sucks to get penalized for playing physical football like that. I’m not sure if Ray hit him in the head. I’m not sure Chris Carr did illegal touching. I’m not sure if Frank Walker did illegal touching. In a game that close, I think it has to be, ‘Hands-down, I got to call that.’”
After Caldwell’s second game-winning score of the season as the Bengals won their fourth game in a row, the fans let their displeasure with the referees be known while others threw stuff at the glass separating them from the Bengals’ coaches in the booth and made profane gestures toward those assistants.
"I’m not going there with you, I don’t do the referee thing," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "If you dominate, the calls don’t matter."
"Some tough calls, but you can’t leave it in their hands," nose guard Kelly Gregg said. "They just beat us."
Reed wasn’t so diplomatic, though.
"You want them to let us play ball," he said. "It’s supposed to be a 50-50 equal playing field for both teams. At points like that, it just didn’t seem like it. Certain calls just didn’t seem to go our way when they’re supposed to. You can’t put it in anybody’s hands.
"You can’t have close calls. You can’t put them in position where it’s a 50-50 call for the referees, because you don’t know which way it going to go. It’s not about them. It’s about us playing sound football."
Harbaugh said that he isn’t concerned about the officiating, just his team’s play.
"I’m not thinking about it,” he said. “I just think we have to play better. The idea is to play so well that those things become irrelevant. ..
"You have to find a way not to have penalties. You have to find a way to get them sacked. You have to find a way to make a play, an interception, whatever it might be, and I think we all have to do a better job at that."
The Ravens came up short in the clutch again after it appeared they had the game won on running back Ray Rice’s dramatic 48-yard touchdown run where he shrugged off linebacker Brandon Johnson.
Rice used his left arm to stay on his feet by extending his fingertips into the ground before scooting to the end zone.
"They didn’t tackle me," he said. "I got down, and I think they thought my knee was down, but I was just doing an old-school drill, grass-picking, and I found my way through."
That score provided the Ravens with a 14-10 lead with 6:59 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Usually, that would be enough.
Not on this day, though, as the defense allowed Palmer, who’s not known for his mobility, to scramble six yards for a first down on 4th-and-1 on the game-winning drive.
"We say we’re this defense, we’ve got to be it at all times," Suggs said. "Fourth-and-inches, to let a non-scrambling quarterback run the ball, that hurt. There’s no excuse.
"We didn’t play good football at all. We made some plays but they made more and they did it in our stadium, and that’s not acceptable."
Palmer completed 18 of 31 passes for 271 yards while Ochocinco caught seven passes for 94 yards.
Offensively, the Ravens were suspect for the first time this season.
A conservative game plan from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was ineffectual and all but conceded that the deep pass was practically impossible.
The Ravens targeted their receivers just nine times for a total of four receptions for 57 yards.
Quarterback Joe Flacco completed 22 of 31 passes for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions for a 70.1 quarterback rating. He overthrew an open Mark Clayton badly to squander a potential touchdown.
"They backed up and tried to take away the deep ball so we had to go underneath and they played good defense," said two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Mason, who was thrown to once for no catches. "They didn’t do anything different from what we practiced for. They played hard and they deserved to win."
The Ravens entered the game averaging 32.5 points and 413.5 yards of total offense per contest.
They finished this game with a season-low 257 yards of offense and just a dozen first downs as they converted only 3 of 11 third downs for a 27 percent clip.
The Ravens attempted to dink and dunk their way downfield, but it rarely worked.
"They definitely played well, but I don’t think we did the things we wanted to do," Flacco said. "When we go back and look at that, I think we’ll see it."
The Bengals were simply more resilient than the Ravens.
Cincinnati overcame Reed returning a telegraphed Palmer pass to Ochocinco 52 yards or a touchdown in the second quarter that staked Baltimore to a 7-0 lead.
Then, Reed popped the football out of Ochocinco’s hands from behind later in the first half.
The Bengals built a 10-7 lead by the third quarter on Benson’s 28-yard touchdown run where he ran through linebacker Antwan Barnes’ arm tackle.
"I just missed the tackle," Barnes said. "I messed up."
The score was set up by Domonique Foxworth’s illegal contact penalty on third down.
Although the Bengals screwed up the ensuing extra point, they were given another shot when Pryce drew an illegal formation penalty for lining up over struggling long snapper Brad. St. Louis. Then, Pryce converted the extra try.
Now, the Ravens are tasked with trying to find a way to upset the undefeated Minnesota Vikings (5-0) next week at the Metrodome.
"We better start playing some good football," Suggs said. "We better start doing it like right now before too many of these get away from us."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.