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DENVER — In a defensive duel as chilling and unforgiving as the blustery weather, the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ undefeated record evaporated Monday night as quarterback Steve McNair melted down on national television.
There was no rebuttal this time for the Ravens in a 13-3 loss to the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field at Mile High as McNair uncorked a season-high three interceptions.
There wouldnâ€™t be a third consecutive dramatic comeback engineered by McNair, or a defensive statement emphatic enough to overcome a sputtering offense.
"We’re going to put the blame on everybody. If you don’t want to take some blame, then you need to get out of this locker room," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "It was evident in Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, and it was very evident in Game 5, when you score only three points.
"It’s very, very disappointing. Whoever tries to sugarcoat it, they don’t need to be in this locker room, coaches included. All of us have to take the blame, head man included. It’s a problem, and we have to fix it as an offense, somehow, some way."
The Ravens (4-1) absorbed a frustrating defeat as McNair finished the game 20 of 34 for 165 yards with a 34.6 passer rating.
When McNair scrambled to his left and telegraphed his late throw intended for wide receiver Mark Clayton with 6:47 remaining in the game, cornerback Darrent Williams intercepted it to seal the game for the Broncos.
"When you play this game as long as I have, you can’t expect to win ballgames with three interceptions," McNair said. "If it’s anybody’s fault, it’s mine. I take the blame for this one.
"We’ve all got to get better, and we will. This is a wake-up call for us; it’s not a panic button. This is a long season. It’s a marathon, not a sprint."
Just in case after McNair’s interception, the Broncosâ€™ offense came alive in the final minutes as quarterback Jake Plummer connected with wide receiver Rod Smith for a 4-yard touchdown.
For good measure, former University of Maryland cornerback Dominique Foxworth intercepted McNair for the third time in the final seconds off a tipped pass.
â€œItâ€™s very frustrating to only score three points,â€ tight end Todd Heap said. â€œObviously we have a lot of things to figure out as an offense. We’re looking for answers right now. Of course, these things concern us."
After an ineffective showing throughout the game, Plummer composed himself enough to give the Broncos the edge. His 12-yard quarterback sweep and a clutch completion to Smith set up Jason Elamâ€™s game-winning field goal with 8:03 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, rookie punter Sam Koch shanked a 10-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Denver 36. The Broncos converted two third downs to set up Elam’s 44-yard field goal.
The Ravens couldnâ€™t run around or through the Broncos, not with featured back Jamal Lewis struggling to make any sort of impact again. They were rarely able to pass effectively, too.
Lewis was ineffectual again, gaining just 43 yards on his first 15 carries by the end of the third quarter. Thatâ€™s an average of 2.9 per carry.
Lewis often was unable to take advantage of his blocking, which opened up gaping holes for him. He didn’t have enough burst to get through them. He also rarely, if ever, got the best of confrontations with defenders in the open field.
Former Broncos running back Mike Anderson averaged 6.2 yards per carry, gaining 31 yards on five attempts.
The Ravens nearly had a disastrous start to the third quarter when McNair fumbled deep in his own territory.
Broncos defensive tackle Gerard Warren attempted to scoop up the loose ball, but flubbed it and center Mike Flynn secured the ball.
Everything was set up nicely for the Ravens to reclaim the lead one minute before halftime.
Following McNairâ€™s sideline strike to Mason, whose 26-yard reception down to the Broncosâ€™ 11-yard line was upheld after an instant replay-review, the Ravens took three shots at the Broncosâ€™ end zone.
That effort wound up being in vain, though.
Operating out of the shotgun formation, McNair tried to lob the football to 6-foot-6, 220-pound wide receiver Clarence Moore. However, McNairâ€™s pass wasnâ€™t high enough to evade the grasp of All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey and Moore didnâ€™t do enough to disrupt his end-zone interception with 36 seconds remaining before halftime. Bailey is six inches shorter than Moore.
It was the first interception of the season for Bailey, who had just been burned by Mason three plays before.
In the first half, the Ravens had just 149 yards of total offense, and Denver had only 68.
Denver was limited to a mere nine yards of total offense in the first quarter, including three rushing yards.
McNair completed 10 of his first 18 passes for just 88 yards and a lowly 45.6 passer rating. Plummer was even worse with a miniscule 6.2 passer rating on eight first-half passes for six yards and an interception.
With 4:54 remaining in the second quarter, Denver knotted the score at 3-3 on a 43-yard Jason Elam field goal.
His kick capped a drive abbreviated by the Ravensâ€™ defensive surge as they stopped Bell twice for gains of one and two yards following an 11-yard run.
The Broncos had prime field position following Williamsâ€™ 33-yard scampering punt return down to the Ravensâ€™ 42-yard line before Gary Stills finally tackled him.
Plummer cemented his already streaky reputation with his fifth interception of the season after uncorking just seven all last season in leading Denver to the AFC title game.
Targeting cornerback Samari Rolle, who had been beaten for touchdown passes the past two weeks, Plummer tried to go deep to his No. 1 target, Javon Walker. However, Rolle leapt high into the air to intercept a short-armed throw.
The Ravens failed to capitalize as they were unable to generate any points off this turnover that followed a fumble by running back Tatum Bell earlier in the first quarter.
After one quarter, Baltimore had outgained the Broncos 56-3 on the ground.
That yardage included a nine-yard burst up the middle by Anderson.
The Ravens immediately signaled what kind of game it was going to be on the Broncosâ€™ initial drive.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs diagnosed a screen pass to Bell and ripped the football out of his grasp. Then, cornerback Chris McAlister managed to keep both feet in bounds on a challenging fumble recovery he tightroped at the Broncosâ€™ 42 yard line.
Baltimore capitalized on the turnover nine plays later with a 24-yard field goal from Matt Stover, his franchise-record and personal-best 30th in a row, after a sputtering drive.
Clayton was unable to bull into the end zone on 3rd-and-9 at the Broncosâ€™ 12 and was pushed out of bounds at the six-yard line.
Now, the Ravens return home to face the Carolina Panthers (3-2) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"We took a blow today and it’s going to be a test of the character of this team," linebacker Bart Scott said. "We just have to bounce back and go back to the drawing board and tighten up the screws a little bit."
NOTES: Reserve linebacker Mike Smith left the game with a concussion and didnâ€™t return. â€¦ The Ravens deactivated cornerbacks David Pittman and Derrick Martin, running backs P.J. Daniels and Cory Ross, outside linebacker Dan Cody, offensive guard Ikechuku Ndukwe, wide receiver Devard Darling and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards. â€¦ Denverâ€™s inactives included defensive end Courtney Brown, tight end Nate Jackson, offensive tackle Adam Meadows, offensive guard Chris Kuper, linebacker Nate Webster, running back Cedric Cobbs, safety Hamza Abdullah and wide receiver Todd Devoe. â€¦ It was Denver coach Mike Shanahanâ€™s 200th career game. â€¦ It also marked McNairâ€™s first game against the Broncos in his 12-year career. â€¦ Denver entered the game 8-3 under Shanahan following a bye week, including the previous three in a row. â€¦ Jason Brown started at left guard in place of Edwin Mulitalo, whoâ€™s out for the season with a torn triceps tendon that required surgery last week. â€¦ Broncos safety John Lynch left the game with a pinched nerve in his neck. â€¦ Cornerback Corey Ivy will have X-rays on his chest today. .. Running back Jamal Lewis and offensive tackle Tony Pashos suffered mild concussions.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland