Saints 37, Ravens 25

Several minutes before kickoff today, the Baltimore Ravens learned that the Pittsburgh Steelers had been upset by the expansion Houston Texans, so a victory over the New Orleans Saints would pull them to within a half-game of the lead in the AFC North. The Ravens then proceeded to take that splendid opportunity and bumble it away.

With no significant scoring drive longer than 33 yards, the Saints moved a step closer to the playoffs in the NFC with a 37-25 victory and the Ravens sank to near-certain elimination in the AFC. The relevant details for Baltimore were numerous dropped passes, two interceptions, three lost fumbles and two blocked punts.

"It's more disturbing that we can't raise our level of play right now against the quality teams," Ravens Coach Brian Billick said. "That's preoccupying my mind right now more than anything else."

This was the third time the very young Ravens (6-7) had faced a quality team with a chance to push past .500 and the third time they have lost. The Saints (9-4) were hardly flawless (two lost fumbles) but had the game in hand midway through the fourth quarter when backup quarterback Jake Delhomme completed a 54-yard pass to wide receiver Jake Reed on third down that led to a field goal and a 30-17 lead.

There were all manner of emotional twists, with the crowd booing when the Saints gained a 10-0 lead after a fumble by quarterback Jeff Blake and the first of two blocks on punter Dave Zastudil. They were cheering fairly soon, however, when the Ravens drove 75 yards and tailback Jamal Lewis scored the first of his two touchdowns.

But that was as close as the Ravens came as the Saints took a 20-point lead midway through the third quarter on the second of tailback Deuce McAllister's three short touchdown runs.

"It was a domino effect," said Blake, who passed for 316 yards but lost a fumble and was intercepted twice.

Lewis also scored on a 77-yard swing pass from Blake but lost two fumbles.

"Everything was laying right in front of us," said Ravens tight end Todd Heap, "and we didn't grab it. I still think there's a shot, but some things have to happen for us. We still have to play Cleveland [now in second place in the division] and Pittsburgh. If we can bounce back and get our heads into it, we can still go somewhere."

The emotional swings started with the first of Baltimore's early gaffes, Blake losing control of the ball as he was rearing back to pass and defensive end Willie Whitehead recovering on the Ravens 22-yard line. The defense held and John Carney kicked the first of his three field goals, from 39 yards.

Next came Zastudil's indecision, which ended with Fred McAfee blocking the punt and Fakhir Brown picking up the ball and running 11 yards to the Baltimore 28. On second down, cornerback Gary Baxter bit on an inside move and the Saints had a 10-0 lead shortly after Donte Stallworth made a relatively easy catch in the left corner of the end zone.

Zastudil said the play was a pass to rookie Ron Johnson. However, the Saints played Johnson tighter than expected.

Just when the fans were getting into a booing mood, two long plays, a reverse that wide receiver Travis Taylor ran for 31 yards and a leaping catch by Heap that gained 43 yards, set up a one-yard Lewis touchdown. That narrowed the Saints' lead to three points late in the first quarter.

Late in the second quarter, there were three turnovers within a 20-second span. The Saints blocked another Zastudil punt, but McAllister fumbled on first down and linebacker Peter Boulware recovered. But Lewis fumbled on first down after linebacker Charles Clemons got his arm around Lewis's and linebacker Darrin Smith recovered for the Saints at the Baltimore 33.

The Ravens were not through making mistakes. On third down from the 33, cornerback Chris McAlister was caught ripping the helmet off Stallworth in the end zone -- and 11 yards were added to the 10 quarterback Aaron Brooks gained after eluding a Raven in the backfield. Another personal foul, on defensive lineman Kelly Gregg, set up first and goal at the 6-yard line and McAllister rammed in for a 20-7 lead at halftime.

New Orleans seemed to put the game away with nine minutes left in the third quarter, after backup defensive lineman Kenny Smith recovered the second of Lewis's fumbles at the Baltimore 22 and McAllister ran into the end zone from the 3.

However, Lewis scored on the 77-yard swing pass and Matt Stover added a 26-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. And Brooks was out of the game with a shoulder lnjury. The lightly regarded Delhomme completed 7 of 8 passes -- and the one to Reed ended most of the suspense.

"We pride ourselves on holding teams to field goals, no matter what the field position," Ravens linebacker Edgerton Hartwell said. "Half the time we did that today, half the time we didn't. But we keep fighting, no matter how many mistakes we make."

Mel Mitchell gets hand on punt by Ravens' Dave Zastudil, one of two Saints (9-4) blocked in win to move closer to playoffs. Ravens fell to 6-7.