By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
CINCINNATI, Sept. 10 -- One by one, the perceived Super Bowl contenders in the AFC stepped up during the NFL's opening weekend and put together impressive performances: First it was the Indianapolis Colts, then the New England Patriots, and then the San Diego Chargers.
The Baltimore Ravens' turn came on Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals inside a hostile Paul Brown Stadium, and they botched it. Literally. The Ravens committed six turnovers, including an interception on the potential game-tying drive in the final 90 seconds, and lost, 27-20, in front of 66,093.
"It's an extremely tough loss," tight end Todd Heap said. "You always want to start the season getting off on the right foot, and when you look at the way that ballgame was played, we played horribly most of the game and to battle through all of those things. . . . It's just frustrating that we didn't capitalize."
To make matters worse, four Baltimore starters suffered injuries. Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis injured his right triceps on the first defensive series, but played the rest of the game in obvious pain, with his arm wrapped. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who didn't play at all during the preseason due to an injured toe, started but limped off the field early in the second quarter and didn't return. Returner B.J. Sams badly sprained his knee. And quarterback Steve McNair injured his groin in the first quarter and after it got progressively worse, was replaced on the final series by back-up Kyle Boller.
Boller nearly led the Ravens to a potential game-tying or winning score, but was intercepted by defensive tackle Michael Myers on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line with 1 minute 19 seconds to play. The Ravens thought they had scored a touchdown four plays earlier, but Boller's one-yard pass on fourth down to Heap was waved off due to offensive pass interference.
This matchup between the past two AFC North champions had a definite big-game feel to it; the Bengals were billing it as the biggest season opener in their history. Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Johnson promised that this game -- which featured one of the league's best offenses going against its best defense -- would be "ridiculous," and he vowed to put on a show.
He was right on both accounts. Johnson put on a show with five catches for 95 yards, and followed his 39-yard first-quarter touchdown catch with a choreographed skit in which teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh pulled a pale yellow blazer out of a trash bag on the sidelines and draped it around Johnson's shoulders, revealing "Future HOF 20??" on the back.
And the Ravens' in ability to hold onto the ball was ridiculous. Four of the turnovers -- three fumbles and an interception -- were charged to the veteran McNair.
After the Ravens battled to take a 20-19 lead with 12:07 left in the game -- thanks to a 63-yard punt return by safety Ed Reed, who was called into duty after Sams sprained his knee -- McNair was intercepted on third down by defensive end Robert Geathers, and returned it 30 yards to the Baltimore 22. Two plays later, Houshmandzadeh scored on a seven-yard pass from Carson Palmer.
The Ravens, fresh off of a 13-3 season and their second division title in four seasons, viewed this game as a "tone-setter" -- especially so on the offensive side of the ball. They spent the past month talking about how they were going to be more versatile and explosive, and how they were going to finally become a worthy complement to their top-ranked defense.
Instead, they were hindrance. Twenty-four of Cincinnati's 27 points came off of Baltimore turnovers -- after losing just nine fumbles all of last season, the Ravens lost four in the first 38 minutes of the game, including three in a span of four minutes.