PITTSBURGH—In a season in which the Ravens have taken several shots to their pride, they might have received the knockout blow last night.
Fumbling and bumbling their way before a national television audience, the Ravens embarrassed themselves in a 38-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at rain-soaked Heinz Field.
After humbling losses at Cleveland and Buffalo, the Ravens bottomed out in almost every aspect.
It was the largest margin of defeat in the nine-year Brian Billick era. Steve McNair had the fewest yards passing in NFL history (63) by a quarterback that completed 13 passes. And the defense tied a team record with five touchdown passes allowed.
"I wouldn't begin to know how to characterize this," Billick said. "You have days like that. I won't try to justify it or try to explain it. You just can't do the things that we did."
It was a sobering defeat filled with three lost fumbles and two team records for futility - setting a mark for fewest total yards (104) and tying for fewest first downs (five) - all of which put a major dent in the Ravens' chances of repeating as AFC North champions.
The Ravens, who entered one game back of sharing the division lead, fell to 0-3 in the AFC North. Since the NFL went to eight divisions in 2002, no team has won a division after losing its first three games in it.
"If you don't think that it's embarrassing, you're not a competitor," McNair said. "This game was on national TV; it hurts."
Asked why the struggles occurred, McNair said: "We played against a good defense. That's how it happened. It's not the end of the world. It's not a time to panic. But there is a sense of urgency."
But the Ravens can't think about gaining control of the division when they can't even control the ball.
In a span in which the Ravens touched the ball eight times in the first quarter, quarterback Steve McNair, safety Ed Reed and running back Willis McGahee all fumbled in Ravens territory.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was beaten up by the Ravens last season, converted those fumbles into scores, throwing five touchdown passes in the first half.
The Ravens continually gave chances to the Steelers at a time when they couldn't afford to do so. For the first time in the Ravens' 184-game history, they played without both starting cornerbacks - Chris McAlister (knee injury) and Samari Rolle (undisclosed illness).
Roethlisberger was able to elude the Ravens' pass rush and rip apart the depleted secondary, completing 13 of 16 passes for 209 yards.
As he has done in the Ravens' five straight losses on national television, McNair was unable to muster a counterattack. With a pocket that often resembled a mosh pit, McNair was 13-for-22 for 63 yards and an interception in his first start since Oct. 7.
Asked to characterize McNair's play, Billick said, "I'll let you do that.
Asked whether McNair was still the starter, Billick said, "Yep, absolutely."
This represented a good measure of payback for the Steelers, who were outscored 58-7 in two losses to the Ravens last season.
The Ravens spent the 15-day layoff during the bye talking about regaining a sense of urgency and calling this "their playoff game." But the Ravens never seemed to show up.