CINCINNATI—On a night when the Ravens could have had the AFC North clinched, they flinched.
Committing mistakes in all three phases - offense, defense and special teams - the Ravens flopped before a national television audience, falling to the Cincinnati Bengals, 13-7, at Paul Brown Stadium last night.
By the time the downpour came in the second half, the Ravens' party had already been rained out.
The Ravens' first loss since Oct. 15 foiled their chance to become the first team in the NFL to secure a playoff spot and tightened what had been a nonexistent race in the AFC North. The Ravens (9-3) lead the Bengals (7-5) by two games with four weeks remaining.
"It's always disappointing when you miss an opportunity," coach Brian Billick said. "Fortunately, we're in a position that we can control that going forward. We don't have to rely on anybody else. Nothing else has to happen except that we have to play good football, and I think we're capable of that."
The Bengals were excited about their third straight win.
"It's huge," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "We're rolling now. Hopefully we'll wind up getting a spot in the playoffs."
The Ravens' hopes of clinching the second division title in team history were essentially dashed in the third quarter by - of all Bengals - T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the receiver who said Cincinnati had "better players" after their loss to the Ravens in Baltimore on Nov. 5.
With the Bengals catching safety Ed Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister off guard with a flea-flicker, Houshmandzadeh ran uncovered down the field and caught a 40-yard touchdown. The biggest play allowed by the Ravens last night staked Cincinnati to a 13-0 lead early in the third quarter.
"It's really too hard to explain at this time," McAlister said.
That lapse ruined a respectable effort by the secondary, which limited Palmer to 74 yards passing in the second half.
The Ravens did admit the trick play was not expected.
"Unbelievable," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "Who has a expletive flea-flicker in their playbook?"
While the Bengals were held to less than 30 points for the first time in four games, the Ravens' offense couldn't capitalize.
Quarterback Steve McNair wasn't sharp, completing 26 of 43 passes for 227 yards. He could have been intercepted four times if rookie cornerback Johnathan Joseph hadn't dropped the ball.
Running back Jamal Lewis gained 61 yards on 17 carries, the first time in six games that he didn't crack 100 yards at Paul Brown Stadium.
As a result, a Ravens team that had averaged 27.8 points with Billick as offensive coordinator needed a desperation touchdown pass in the final 61 seconds to avoid being shut out.
"It's my responsibility to get that rhythm going for them," Billick said. "We did some things but we just couldn't sustain anything."