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CINCINNATI — There were a few defining images created by the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ sputtering, misfiring offense, and all of them contributed heavily to a losing cause Thursday night against the Cincinnati Bengals.
As much as any other negative factor, an offense that regressed into its ineffectual past stumbled in a 13-7 loss at Paul Brown Stadium that cost Baltimore (9-3) a chance to clinch the AFC North title and become the first NFL team to qualify for the playoffs this season.
There was quarterback Steve McNair having an erratic, inaccurate outing, skidding errant throws across the soggy artificial turf and nearly throwing several interceptions.
There was running back Jamal Lewis stonewalled inside with no cutback lanes to roam through. Rookie offensive guards Chris Chester and Jason Brown along with veteran center Mike Flynn were manhandled at the line of scrimmage by beefy former Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams.
And two-time Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap wasnâ€™t involved as much as usual and was held to four catches for 29 yards.
The effective play-action pass that had emerged as a staple during a five-game winning streak faded into obscurity behind an inconsistent running game.
The Ravens narrowly avoided their first shutout ever against the Bengals on McNairâ€™s last-minute desperation touchdown heave to Derrick Mason, which prevented Baltimore from being shut out for the first time since a 25-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002.
â€œWe shot ourselves in the foot,â€ Heap said. â€œWe have had parts of games go like that in the past where we couldnâ€™t get it going, but somewhere down the line, we find it.
â€œThat didnâ€™t seem to happen. We never got in a groove where we were consistently moving the ball. We had a few plays here and there, but even the scoring drive was too late.â€
McNair completed just 26 of 43 passes, appearing out of rhythm with his intended targets. He could have thrown a season-high four interceptions if not for shaky hands in the Bengalsâ€™ secondary, especially rookie cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
McNair was never sacked, but didnâ€™t usually have clear passing lanes to locate his receivers downfield.
Although McNair connected seven times for 90 yards and a touchdown with Mason, he was never able to produce big plays with the other receivers.
His efforts were hurt by nine penalties for 64 yards, a point he didnâ€™t ignore during his postgame remarks. Also, Baltimore converted just 5 of 16 third downs, a 31-percent conversion rate.
â€œWe just couldnâ€™t get things started,â€ McNair said. â€œWe werenâ€™t frustrated. We were just backed up too many times and we couldnâ€™t get into our game plan. You canâ€™t win ball games like that.
â€œWe were just too inconsistent. We made good plays, but we played bad, too. We were in too many third-and-longs.â€
Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose offense had averaged 28.3 points since he fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and he assumed play-calling duties, took accountability for the lack of production. Baltimore, which ranked 29th in total offense in six games under Fassel, entered the game ranked 24th overall, but struggled against the NFL’s 31st-ranked total defense and last-ranked pass defense.
Cincinnati was coming off a 30-0 shutout win over the Cleveland Browns, and head coach Marvin Lewis, the former Ravens defensive coordinator, has taken a more active role with the defense over the past few games. His schemes and his players’ aggression seemed to be a step ahead of the Ravens all night.
â€œI didnâ€™t get anything going,â€ Billick said. â€œI didnâ€™t get us into a rhythm. Itâ€™s my responsibility to get that rhythm going.
â€œWe did some things, completed some passes, had some good runs. We just couldnâ€™t sustain that.â€
Baltimore went 0-for-2 in the red zone, including a major breakdown in the first half. Trailing 6-0 in the final minute before halftime, McNair completed a 9-yard pass to Heap down to the Bengalsâ€™ 11-yard line.
With no timeouts and 12 seconds remaining, McNair decided to spike the ball on third down. With Billick trying to settle for a 29-yard field goal, long snapper Matt Katulaâ€™s low snap led to kicker Matt Stover missing his first attempt within 40 yards in 23 tries.
â€We wanted to have a little momentum going into halftime,â€ McNair said. â€œYou could look at it both ways. Could we have run a play? We just didn’t want to take any chance of turning the ball over."
Meanwhile, Lewis wound up rushing for just 61 yards on 17 carries, an average of 3.6 per carry. As a team, Baltimore rushed for 89 yards on 20 carries. However, 27 of those yards came on a pair of McNair scrambles.
It marked the first time in six games that Lewis didn’t crack 100 yards at Paul Brown Stadium.
â€œIt was just rough, pretty much just tough sledding,â€ Lewis said. â€œWe really couldnâ€™t get rolling either way, running the ball, throwing the ball, couldnâ€™t get going. So, we couldnâ€™t get the momentum going, couldnâ€™t get no kind of tempo and then, at the same time, playing from behind.
â€œWe know that anybody who plays us is going to stack the box, but weâ€™ve got to go out and execute. Thatâ€™s Marvin Lewis. Youâ€™ve got to respect him. You know what to expect from him. We just couldnâ€™t get the ball rolling.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland