- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2002

BALTIMORE The Baltimore Ravens probably bumbled away their playoff chances yesterday.
Knowing a win would put them within a half-game of the AFC North lead, the Ravens proceeded to lose three fumbles, throw two interceptions and have two punts blocked.
That many mistakes don't often add up to wins in the NFL. The Ravens turned into gracious hosts as they handed the New Orleans Saints a 37-25 victory yesterday before 69,334 at Ravens Stadium.
Coming into the game, the Ravens were aware the expansion Houston Texans upset the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers 24-6 earlier in the day. A win over the Saints would have put the young Ravens in perfect position to claim the division, especially with three games remaining and a regular-season-ending clash at the Steelers (7-5-1) on Dec.29.
The defeat didn't mathematically eliminate the Ravens (6-7) from the playoffs with the Steelers losing yesterday, but it was a devastating blow.
"We gave them 20 points, 14 points at least just on turnovers," said Ravens quarterback Jeff Blake, who passed for a season-high 316 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. "They capitalized each time they had a turnover."
The Saints (9-4) scored 31 of their 37 points off Ravens' turnovers. The 37 points were the most surrendered by the Ravens since Brian Billick became the coach in 1999. With the loss, the Ravens went 0-4 this season against the NFC South.
The Ravens' young receivers dropped countless catchable balls they dropped at least seven balls that would have resulted in first downs. On fourth-and-3 at the Saints' 37 in the second quarter with the Ravens trailing 10-0, Blake hit receiver Travis Taylor in the chest for what would have been a first down, but the ball bounced off Taylor and hit the ground. It was like that all game for the Ravens.
Tight end Todd Heap (five receptions for 87 yards) and running back Jamal Lewis (four receptions for 108 yards and one touchdown) were the Ravens' most reliable receivers.
"I can't look Jeff in the eye," said Taylor, who finished with five receptions for 83 yards. "He doesn't have a lot of confidence in us right now."
An utterly comical first quarter by the Ravens quickly spotted the Saints a 10-0 lead. On their first possession, Blake let the ball simply slip out of his hand while throwing and New Orleans recovered the fumble at the Ravens' 22. Four plays later, the Saints led 3-0 on a John Carney 34-yard field goal.
For the Ravens, the worst was yet to come. On its next possession, Baltimore wasted a 40-yard kickoff return by rookie Chester Taylor as the offense stalled at midfield. On fourth-and-7 at the 50, Ravens rookie punter Dave Zastudil, who played quarterback in high school, tried to throw a pass off a fake, then tried to punt the ball when he realized that his intended receivers were covered. But the Saints' Fred McAfee blocked the punt and backup cornerback Fakhir Brown recovered and returned it to the Ravens' 28 with 7:14 left in the first quarter.
On second-and-10, Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks hit rookie wide receiver Donte' Stallworth in stride as the rookie from Tennessee blew past Ravens cornerback Gary Baxter down the left sideline for a 28-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
"A blocked punt is the most dramatic turnover in the game emotionally," Billick said.
So is a healthy dose of the NFC's leading rusher Deuce McAllister, who rushed for 127 yards on 32 carries (4.0 avg.) and had three touchdowns (1, 3 and 6 yards). McAllister now has 1,176 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season. One of the Ravens' linebackers made a mistake of getting McAllister fired up.
"There was one particular linebacker [Ed Hartwell] that was really jawing," McAllister said. "It was like you were waking a sleeping giant. I really hadn't played well, had a fumble and everything, and he really got me going. Then, we started talking, so it kind of woke me up and said, 'Well, let's go play if that's what you want to do, then let's go play.' Because, I'm not a guy that's going to talk a lot, I just want to go about the game and have fun."
Early turnovers forced the Ravens to play catchup all game. The Ravens cut the Saints' deficit to 10-7 in the first quarter on a 1-yard Jamal Lewis plunge. The touchdown was set up by a 43-yard bomb to Heap down the right sideline. Heap made an incredible catch when he jumped over Saints cornerback Fred Thomas and pulled down Blake's perfectly thrown ball at the Saints 1-yard line.
But the Saints added 10 second-quarter points and a McAllister touchdown in the third to lead 27-7. Lewis atoned for his two fumbles with a 77-yard touchdown reception to cut it to 27-14 with 8:41 left in the third, but McAllister's third touchdown with 2:57 to play made it 37-17, effectively ending the game and maybe the Ravens' playoff chances.
"You certainly don't beat a team the caliber of New Orleans when you turn it over," Billick said. "It's more disturbing that we can't raise our level of play right now against the quality teams, that's the thing that sticks in my mind more than anything else."

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