PITTSBURGH - A season loaded with growing pains concluded with another gut-wrencher.
One more time, the Ravens blinked with the game on the line. One more time, quarterback Jeff Blake had to explain a costly mistake. One more time, coach Brian Billick had to defend a strategic move.
As their two-year playoff run came to an end, the Ravens found no closure in a 34-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday before 61,961 at Heinz Field. Their inability to finish games the past two weeks turned them from a playoff team to a losing one.
A week after allowing a game-winning touchdown in the final minute, the Ravens (7-9) were the ones driving the length of the field to the Steelers' 11-yard line. But Blake was intercepted with 14 seconds left in the game, when he short-armed a pass into the end zone and into double coverage.
The Ravens' fourth turnover sealed the first losing season in Billick's four-year tenure.
"I'm not going to second-guess Jeff and how and where he threw it," Billick said. "It was worth a shot. It was my responsibility to call the play and to take a shot. Yeah, we could have kicked the field goal and gone into overtime. But when you're where we're at and what's going on, hell, you take a shot."
On that final drive, the Ravens knew they were playing for pride, not the playoffs. Looking at the scoreboard, they had already been eliminated from the postseason when the Cleveland Browns beat the Atlanta Falcons.
But the Ravens, who racked up a season-best 422 yards of total offense, marched quickly from their 20 to the Pittsburgh 20 primarily on a couple of throws to tight end Todd Heap and a 33-yard, one-handed catch by receiver Randy Hymes. The Ravens then moved inside the red zone with 18 seconds remaining when linebacker Joey Porter was flagged for roughing the passer.
The Ravens called "X-Sluggo, H-Seam" which sent Hymes on a double move (a slant-and-go) on the left side and Heap in the right flat. With Heap sandwiched by Steelers, Blake decided to throw a jump ball to his primary receiver instead. He stared down Hymes, double-clutched and threw a floater to an undrafted rookie who was quarterbacking Grambling State last season.
Standing in front of Hymes, Pittsburgh cornerback Dewayne Washington hauled in the pass as the Steelers picked off Blake in the end zone for the second time.
"Maybe I could have thrown it away," said Blake, an unrestricted free agent this offseason who finished 19-for-26 for 336 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. "But I got a 6-4 receiver on a 5-9 defensive back. I'll take that matchup all day. I put it up to see if he could make the play, and it turned the other way around."
Besides Washington, Hymes was blanketed by safety Lee Flowers as well.
"I was kind of surprised he threw it," Washington said.
The Ravens' back-and-forth bout with the AFC North champions symbolized their season in many ways. The NFL's youngest team started off slowly and gained composure in the middle before falling apart at the end.
Rallying back from 10 points down, the Ravens took a 31-20 lead in the fourth quarter only to watch the Steelers score the game's final 14 points. Flags, turnovers and missed tackles were too much to overcome.
"We have to learn how to finish," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "When you're up on somebody, you got to step on their throat and just finish them off. You have to learn how to do that in this league. You can't let somebody get back up, or else they'll knock you back out."
The Ravens started like they finished.
Driving deep into Steelers territory, Blake threw on the run to a heavily covered Heap. Blake's pass was intercepted in the end zone by Deshea Townsend. Pittsburgh capitalized by going 80 yards to take a 7-0 lead on Hines Ward's 23-yard catch.
"Maybe I should not have thrown it to him because he was double-covered," Blake said. "But I've seen him make those plays before, so I was going to give him an opportunity."
The Steelers (10-5-1), who will face the Browns in the first round of the playoffs next weekend, were continually helped by the Ravens in the first half.
Four penalties on third down - which included roughing the passer by Tony Weaver, illegal contact by Chris McAlister, pass interference by Gary Baxter and a face mask by Chad Williams - kept drives alive and staked Pittsburgh to a 17-7 lead midway through the second quarter.
After Alan Ricard's 6-yard touchdown run closed the margin to 17-14, the Ravens tried to narrow the margin further in the final minute of the first half. But linebacker Jason Gildon tossed Ravens right tackle Ethan Brooks out of the way and sacked Blake, forcing a fumble at midfield.
With nine seconds left in the first half, quarterback Tommy Maddox hit receiver Plaxico Burress for a 21-yard pass and kicker Jeff Reed converted a 48-yard field goal to send the Steelers into halftime with a 20-14 lead.
"It wasn't what they were doing that hurt us," Baxter said. "It was us hurting ourselves with the penalties. I think some of them were legitimate, but I think a lot of them came from us being physical in this game."
The Ravens stormed back, scoring the first 17 points of the second half. Matt Stover made a 43-yard field goal, and the Ravens converted two Maddox interceptions into touchdowns.
Backup running back Chester Taylor's 20-yard touchdown catch put the Ravens ahead 31-20 with 12:57 remaining in the game. But he would factor heavily in giving the lead up.
After the Steelers cut the deficit to 31-26 on Amos Zereoue's 5-yard run and dive, Taylor tried to field the ensuing kickoff on the run. The ball bounced off his chest, and Pittsburgh recovered at the Ravens' 31.
"Stuff like that happens," Taylor said. "I had it in my hands, but I never had control of it, and it just came out."
On the ninth play of the slowly moving drive, Maddox had nine seconds to scan the field before finding a wide-open Antwaan Randle El for an 8-yard touchdown, moving Pittsburgh back ahead 34-31 with 2:29 left.
But the Ravens' attempted answer - which resulted in Blake's interception in the end zone - only led to more questions.
"Don't rip Jeff and don't rip [offensive coordinator] Matt Cavanaugh," Billick said. "That was my call. You rip me for taking a shot on a 7-8 football team instead of just ... saying, 'Whoa, baby I don't want to do this and let's kick a field goal and hope things work out.'
"If you're too cautious and too careful about everything you do, then you don't belong in this business. Yeah, I don't want him to throw an interception and he would probably like to have it back. But you take your shots and you take your chances. And you win when you win and you lose when you lose."
The Ravens' past two losses - which have come by a combined four points - ended their season but will serve as a starting point for next season.
"Sometimes you'd rather lose when you have no chance," said Heap, who outjumped the Steelers to make seven catches for 146 yards and a touchdown. "Losing this way takes your heart away from you."
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun