Battered all night by Baltimore's relentless pass rush, Drew Brees could feel his protection collapsing and Terrell Suggs getting ahold of him as he urgently unloaded a pass to the right flat toward tight end Jimmy Graham.
The ball sailed behind Graham and into the waiting arms of defensive back Will Hill, who raced 44 yards untouched for a go-ahead touchdown. The Saints never recovered and dropped their third straight game, 34-27 on Monday night.
"This is a game of inches and split seconds and unfortunately a lot of those have not gone our way this year," said Brees, who was also sacked four times. "We've got to accept what's happened but remain undeterred in regards to our direction. We just need a win. Winning cures a lot of things."
Indeed, in the anemic NFC South, every victory is big. Despite their recent skid, New Orleans (4-7) remains in a first-place tie with Atlanta (4-7) for the division lead, marking the first time a division leader in the NFL was three games below .500.
"We've got to make sure we've got enough thick skin and be able to have the mental and physical toughness to bounce back and get ready to play next week, because we're playing obviously an important game," said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose club visits Pittsburgh on Sunday. "Obviously, to be playing for something is important and yet we've got to make sure some of the things we did better tonight we continue to build on and some of the things we didn't do as well tonight we get corrected."
The Saints once again struggled on defense as well.
Justin Forsett rushed for a career-high 182 yards and two touchdowns for the Ravens (7-4), who remained on the heels of Cincinnati (7-3-1) for first place in the AFC North.
"The offensive line did a great job of making those lanes open for me," Forsett said. "I just tried to seize the moment."
Steve Smith, a longtime Saints nemesis from his 13 season in Carolina, caught four passes for 89 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown. His first-down catch in the third quarter precipitated a scuffle for which Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro was assessed a personal foul.
"He tried to tackle me. I tried to stiff-arm him to the ground," Smith said. "He threw a punch so I kind of went after him after that."
The Saints carried a 17-14 lead into halftime on Brees' 26-yard scoring pass to Marques Colston, who brought it in while leaping between two defensive backs.
Brees' first scoring pass went for 10 yards to Graham. Brees also hit Graham for a 2-yard score with 40 seconds left, but an ensuing onside kick failed.
The Saints were in position to take an early lead after Joe Morgan's 67-yard run on an end around. It took defensive back Lardarius Webb's horse-collar tackle at the 2 to prevent Morgan from scoring.
The play gave New Orleans first-and-goal on the 1, but the Ravens stopped two runs by Mark Ingram and a scramble by Brees before stuffing Ingram again on fourth-and-goal.
"We just have to keep improving. We can't point fingers," Ingram said. "We have to stay together and continue to get better. We are all confident in each other and trust each other."
One play after Ingram's failed fourth-down run, Forsett broke loose for a 38-yard gain to start a drive that culminated with Smith's touchdown catch as he crashed down backward at the left edge of the end zone.
That gave Smith 11 career touchdown catches against New Orleans, more than he has against any other team.
NOTES: Baltimore improved to 4-0 against the NFC South. ... Saints NT Brodrick Bunkley left in the first quarter with a right leg injury. ... Morgan had a 62-yard catch, giving him 60-plus-yard gains the only two times he touched the ball. ... Baltimore finished with 215 yards rushing.
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