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BALTIMORE — The football careened hauntingly off the left upright, ricocheting off the middle of the crossbar before bouncing back into the end zone.
Seconds after the officials initially ruled Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson’s 51-yard, game-tying field goal at the end of regulation to be no good, the Baltimore Ravens prematurely declared victory with a wild celebration.
In a bizarre sequence, that moment of joy ultimately spiraled downward into a bitter 33-30 overtime defeat Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium that has the reigning AFC North champions pondering a lost season as their fourth consecutive defeat leaves them winless in five division contests.
Before that reality unfolded, the Ravens (4-6) gleefully raced off the field feeling victorious behind 16 consecutive points in the fourth quarter punctuated by Matt Stover’s 47-yard field goal with 26 seconds remaining as the fans erupted in pandemonium.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis was tearing tape off his ankles. Jarret Johnson had deposited his gloves with a kid in the front row of the stands, and shed his cleats.
Roughly half the team was celebrating in the locker room when a team official informed Ravens coach Brian Billick that the team was being summoned back to the field.
"It’s over," said Lewis, according to a team spokesman. "We won."
They really didn’t, though.
The field goal had struck the curved center support behind the crossbar with several Browns pointing out that fact.
Following a lengthy discussion, the officials ruled that the kick had legally passed through the uprights.
"One of the officials signaled incomplete, no good," referee Pete Morelli told a pool reporter. "The other official informed me that the ball hit the back of the extension of the goalpost. ..
"Basically, you have to trust one of the decisions of what actually happened on the play. One was very emphatic that the ball hit the extension and came back across. We determined that was what it struck. Therefore, it made the field goal good."
According to the NFL rulebook, officials are not allowed to use instant replay to review a field goal. Morelli denied that he received any help from the instant-replay booth. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello indicated that Morelli spoke via headphone to replay official Howard Slavin, who informed Morelli that he couldn’t show him the kick because field goals are not reviewable under the rules.
Eventually, back judge Keith Ferguson’s strong opinion led to Morelli’s reversal.
"I wouldn’t even begin to try to explain what happened at the end of the game," an emotional Billick said. "I’ll leave that to those who think they know it better.
"I have no clue what just happened in terms of the ruling and why they called it the way they did. I’m sure they’ll explain it and I’ll get the appropriate memo later in the week."
The Browns won the coin toss in overtime and Dawson connected on a 33-yard field goal to put the Ravens away.
Now, the Ravens are hurting and all but officially eliminated from playoff contention as they were swept by the surging Browns (6-4) in the season series for the first time since 2001.
"It’s crazy, it’s weird," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Just when you thought everything that had gone wrong and you had overcome it, then there’s another thing. They probably made the right call."
Added Johnson: "I guess he made it or whatever, but when they said, ‘No good,’ you’ve achieved so much. .. I had to grab my gloves from a kid in the first row that I gave them to and run back out on the field. Itâ€™s hard to play like that."
Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, who returned from a knee injury that kept him out of the past three games, said he had already unsnapped his shoulder pads after the initial ruling on Dawson’s field goal and would have been taking a shower if he hadn’t been so tired.
Despite the confusion, emotional letdown and momentum swing, McAlister made no excuses.
"The bottom line is you’ve just got to pull out the victory," he said. "You can’t say you’re not getting things going your way. That’s not the nature of this game.
"If you want to win, you’ve got to go out and make plays. You can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. This loss hurts.â€
Despite quarterback Kyle Boller leading an aborted comeback attempt with four fourth-quarter scoring drives to overcome a 13-point deficit, the Ravens came up short again.
With Boller committing three turnovers on two interceptions and a fumble and Baltimore not manufacturing a single first down for nearly 29 minutes, the Ravens couldn’t match the Browns’ effectiveness.
Not even with the advantage of competing against the NFL’s worst-ranked defense that entered the game allowing 410 yards of total offense per game.
"We definitely didn’t start out the way that we wanted to," said Boller, who completed 22 of 41 passes for 279 yards in place of injured starter Steve McNair and eclipsed Vinny Testaverde as the Ravens’ career passing yardage leader. "We kind of regrouped at halftime. .. It’s hard in the first half. We couldn’t get a first down. Itâ€™s just frustrating.â€
Baltimore gave up four turnovers and Boller was sacked six times.
Meanwhile, the Ravens inexplicably kept kicking the football to ultra-dangerous Browns return specialist Josh Cribbs.
It was Cribbs whose 39-yard kickoff return set up Dawson’s game-tying field goal.
And it was Cribbs, who had 90 and 100-yard kickoff returns a week ago against the Pittsburgh Steelers, averaging 35 yards per kickoff return and returning Matt Stover’s overtime kickoff 41 yards to the Browns’ 41-yard line.
About five minutes later, the game was over after a 43-yard drive where former Baltimore quarterback Derek Anderson hit tight end Kellen Winslow for a key 18-yard reception. Five plays later, Dawson knocked in the decisive kick.
"We just have to cover better," Stover said about kicking to Cribbs and allowing the Browns to consistently win the field-position battle. "We have to make sure that we make tackles.
"That guy is a good return man. We have to be football players. That’s what it comes down to being."
A Boller interception was returned 100 yards by Browns safety Brodney Pool to put Cleveland up 27-14 prior to Boller leading the Ravens on a pair of field-goal drives to close the gap to 27-20 with 7:20 remaining.
Running the no-huddle attack, Boller threw a looping 27-yard touchdown pass to Devard Darling in the left corner of the end zone to tie the game with 3:31 left.
Following a defensive stand, Boller connected on 4 of 8 passes for 45 yards to set up what the Ravens thought would be a game-winning field goal from Stover.
During that drive, Billick made a questionable play-call when he called for Boller to pass on 3rd-and-1 with 35 seconds left instead of running the ball. The pass fell incomplete.
However, Boller was eventually outdueled by Anderson, the rising former Baltimore sixth-round draft pick whom Cleveland claimed off waivers when the Ravens tried to sneak him onto the practice squad two years ago.
Anderson completed 24 of 38 passes for 274 yards and ran for a touchdown, and former Ravens Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis rumbled for 92 rushing yards and a touchdown run.
"We can’t buy a break," defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "It’s like anything that can go wrong goes wrong for us, and that’s frustrating. We wanted to win this game so bad. Sometimes, the ball just doesn’t bounce your way."
After the premature jubilation was over, all that was left for the Ravens was bitter disappointment and a somber locker room exited quickly by linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs and free safety Ed Reed, who all declined to comment on this latest setback.
"I’m kind of at a loss for words," offensive guard Chris Chester said. "You go from victory to defeat in the blink of an eye. It’s very, very frustrating."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.