BALTIMORE (AP) — Joe Flacco lay face down on the turf, his lip bloodied. He paused for a few seconds of painful reflection after his futile chase of Denver cornerback Chris Harris ended with the Broncos celebrating a touchdown.
The scene typified a miserable afternoon for the Baltimore Ravens, who derived very little benefit from first-time offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell in a 34-17 defeat on Sunday.
Of all the Ravens’ miscues, Flacco’s ill-timed throw was the most damaging.
Baltimore (9-5) trailed 10-0 and had a first-and-goal at the Denver 4 late in the first half when Harris stepped in front of Anquan Boldin and sprinted down the right sideline en route to the longest interception return in Broncos regular-season history.
“I made a mistake, no other way to say it,” Flacco said. “I wanted to have a fade, came down flat. The guy undercut it, picked it and went the whole way.”
The right side of Flacco’s face was bloody and bruised, much like the Ravens’ usual swagger after their third straight loss.
“We’re a 9-5 football team and we feel like we’re 0-14 right now,” Flacco said.
Safety Ed Reed added: “As a player, I am embarrassed for our city.”
Baltimore has lost three straight– including two in a row at home for the first time since December 2007. The Ravens trailed 31-3 in the fourth quarter before Flacco threw touchdown passes of 31 and 61 yards to tight end Dennis Pitta.
“We couldn’t get anything going until late,” coach John Harbaugh said.
Despite the loss, Baltimore qualified for the playoffs when Pittsburgh lost to Dallas on Sunday night. The Ravens are assured a wild-card berth but hope to go as AFC North champions — they hold a one-game lead over Cincinnati with two games left.
Peyton Manning threw for 204 yards and a touchdown in his ninth consecutive win against Baltimore, the first with the Broncos (11-3).
But he was merely a role player in this one, because Denver’s defense dominated the Ravens. This was supposed to be a test for the Broncos, who were 0-5 in Baltimore and eager to face a quality opponent on the road.
“You come to the Ravens’ house and beat them handily, it’s definitely a statement game,” Harris said. “We definitely wanted to show to everybody that we’re an elite team.”
The Ravens were playing their first game under Caldwell, who replaced the fired Cam Cameron. Baltimore’s offense sputtered in the first half, gaining only 119 yards and committing two turnovers that led to 10 Denver points.
Caldwell’s first crack at being an NFL offensive coordinator was a resounding flop. Flacco went 20 for 40 for 254 yards, lost a fumble and threw an interception. Ray Rice ran for 38 yards on 12 carries and the Ravens produced a meager 56 yards rushing.
For three weeks, Baltimore has needed one win to clinch a fifth straight trip to the playoffs. The Ravens still lead the AFC North, but their lead has shrunk to one game with two to play.
Baltimore’s previous two defeats were by three points apiece. This one wasn’t even close, and the stadium was near empty in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Denver, on the other hand, appears poised to reach the postseason with confidence and momentum. The AFC West champions haven’t lost since Oct. 7, at New England. The Broncos, who can still capture the top seed in the conference, finish with home games against Cleveland and Kansas City.
Baltimore’s first offensive series under Caldwell lasted three plays and ended badly. Flacco fumbled on a third-and-1 plunge and the Broncos recovered at the Denver 47, which led to a 27-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
In the first quarter, Baltimore totaled 21 yards on 12 plays, punted three times and lost a fumble.
Denver went up 10-0 when Jacob Hester ran in from the 1 to cap an 11-play, 78-yard drive. Baltimore answered with three more unproductive plays before punting. On their fifth drive, the Ravens finally got their initial first down — on a 14-yard run by Bernard Pierce with eight minutes left in the half.
Pierce eventually left the game with a concussion, as did wide receiver Torrey Smith, who hit his head after attempting to make a leaping catch near the sideline in the third quarter.
Denver pulled away with two third-quarter touchdowns. Manning threw a 51-yard scoring pass to Eric Decker, and after the Ravens went three-and-out, Knowshon Moreno ended a 39-yard drive with a 6-yard run to make it 31-3.
Decker caught eight passes for 133 yards and Moreno finished with 118 yards rushing on 22 carries.
NOTES: Rice passed 1,000 yards rushing for a fourth straight season. … Terrell Suggs returned for Baltimore after missing one game with a torn biceps and made one tackle. … Hester’s score was the second rushing touchdown of his career and the first since his rookie season in 2008. … Pitta had seven catches for 125 yards. … Ravens LB Paul Kruger failed to get a sack for the first time in six games.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)