The chant erupted in the stands as the final seconds ticked off the clock. "Referees suck!" thousands of fans shouted in unison, their fury boiling over after three penalties on the Ravens' defense allowed the Bengals to continue a game-winning drive yesterday.
Minutes later, before most of the fans had even reached their cars, the Ravens' Trevor Pryce stepped to a podium in front of the media.
"What about those calls?" someone asked.
"I don't do the referee thing," Pryce said. "Your job as an athlete is to take it out of the officials' hands. If you dominate, calls don't matter."
Calls didn't doom the Ravens to a 17-14 defeat that knocked them out of first place in the AFC North. The Bengals played better. The Ravens were fortunate to be ahead in the final minutes before the Bengals, with some help, drove 80 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown with 22 seconds to play. And before everyone gets all worked up about the officials again, please know that the Ravens themselves knew they couldn't – and shouldn't -- blame anyone other than themselves on a day when their performance was so lackluster.
"We didn't play good football today. In any phase," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We made some plays but they made more."
The refs did them in? Please. The Bengals generated 22 first downs to the Ravens' 12, gained 403 yards to Baltimore's 257, and controlled the ball for nine more minutes, moving consistently against a defense that was far from impregnable. Cincinnati's Cedric Benson ran for 120 yards, ending the Ravens' 39-game streak of not having allowed a 100-yard rusher.
Honestly, it was Cincinnati mistakes, as much as the Ravens defense, that kept the score down. A bad snap led to a blocked 32-yard field goal attempt by the Bengals in the first quarter. Bengals tight end Daniel Coats dropped an easy catch at the Baltimore 15 midway through the second quarter. And receiver Chad Ochocinco fumbled at the Baltimore 16 just before halftime.
But the Ravens couldn't capitalize. Cincinnati's defense committed to taking away the Ravens' wide receivers, forcing quarterback Joe Flacco to repeatedly dump balls to his second and third options. Eighteen of Flacco's 22 completions went to backs or tight end Todd Heap. Derrick Mason didn't catch one ball.
"(The Bengals) were well-coached. I think they had a nice game plan. Just good fundamentals and a well-coached team," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
And his team?
"We didn't get them stopped when we needed to. We didn't extend drives when we needed to. We didn't make big plays on special teams when we needed to," Harbaugh said. "Those are things you have to do if you want to win."
Two Ravens did contribute brilliant plays, and for a time, it seemed that was going to be enough to produce an ugly win. Early in the second quarter, Ed Reed sniffed out a pass route, picked off Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer's throw and ran it in for a touchdown. Then, after the Bengals had rallied to take a 10-7 lead, running back Ray Rice kept his balance on a tough run up the middle and broke away for a 48-yard score midway through the fourth quarter.
It felt like a day when the home team would survive despite being outgained, but then Palmer drove the Bengals offense 80 yards for a score.
None of the three calls that aided the drive was an obvious refereeing mistake. Chris Carr was flagged for illegal contact, just as he was a week ago in New England. Ray Lewis was flagged for unnecessary roughness after blasting Ochocinco so hard in the head on a crossing pattern that the receiver's helmet flew off. Only the final call, pass interference on Frank Walker, was debatable. Walker said he knocked the pass away without making contact.
"Basically, we did enough (wrong during the game) to put the refs in position to take the game from us," Suggs said. "They had to make judgment calls and they did."
Unlike a week ago, there was no complaining or finger-pointing. The Ravens have other concerns. Their defense is yielding more than anyone thinks it should. And Flacco had intermittent accuracy issues yesterday, throwing into coverage on a first-quarter interception at the goal-line and then overthrowing an open Mark Clayton on a long fourth-quarter pass that could have sealed the win.
"We just have to play better," Harbaugh said. "The idea is to play well enough that (calls) become irrelevant. We didn't do that today."
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.