It wasn't simply the disgust of watching the Pittsburgh Steelers, their most hated rival, come to their stadium and revive their season while temporarily delaying the Ravens' bid to clinch a playoff spot.
That surely hurt but it was the manner in which it happened and what it means going forward that left the Ravens quietly trudging out of their locker room Sunday night, some shell-shocked and searching for answers, others proclaiming that they had just beaten themselves.
In a season where the Ravens have consistently found ways to win, regardless of how much they struggled and how bleak things looked, they discovered a deflating way to lose. They allowed Charlie Batch, a third-string, soon-to-be 38-year-old quarterback, to dig his team out of a fourth quarter deficit and drive the Steelers down the field in the final minutes to set up the game-winning score.
Shaun Suisham's 42-yard field goal as time expired sent the Steelers to a 23-20 victory in front of an announced 71,442 — the second largest crowd at M&T Bank Stadium history — and left the Ravens in a significantly less desirable position than they had been when the day began.
“It [stinks] to let this one go,” Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. “Right now, we're just trying to figure out how and why. Right now, we're eating humble pie and nobody likes to do that. This is a win that we should have had. You can say whatever you want to say, but for us, this [stinks]. It [stinks] to let a team off the hook. It's something we have to deal with until we play next week.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was quick to say that the loss would not “define” his team's season, but it certainly could have had some significant ramifications, including the potential loss of Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs who was forced from the game with an arm injury and he'll have more tests in the days ahead.
The Ravens (9-3) were immediately left to digest the end of their 16-game home winning streak (which includes the playoffs) and their 12-game divisional winning streak. Before Sunday, the Steelers also had the last opposing win at M&T Bank Stadium and that came in December 2010.
Starting the day with a chance to clinch a playoff berth with a win and secure the division title with a victory and a Cincinnati Bengals' loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens watched their divisional lead shrink to two games over the Steelers and Bengals, who also won. The Ravens also fell into the No.3 playoff slot in the AFC.
The Patriots, Ravens and Denver Broncos are all tied with 9-3 records but even though the Patriots lost to the Ravens in Week 3, they have a better conference record (8-1) than the Ravens (8-2) and the Broncos (6-2) so they occupy the No.2 spot. The picture should become more clear when the Ravens host the Broncos in two weeks.
That's part of a difficult four-game, season-ending stretch for the Ravens, which starts Sunday in Landover, Md. against the Washington Redskins.
“We just have to regroup,” said Ravens safety Ed Reed who had an interception and a fumble recovery. “We know this is a journey. We are into the fourth quarter of this thing. We wanted to be 4-0 in the third quarter, but we are not. We have a tough schedule coming up. This is far from over.”
Reed cited a couple of key turnovers by the offense and the defense's failure to get off the field on third down as the Ravens' biggest issues in allowing a 13-3 second quarter lead and a 20-13 fourth quarter advantage be overcome by a Steelers team that was playing without Ben Roethlisberger for the third straight game.
Ray Rice's 34-yard touchdown run, which came after Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders fumbled the ball untouched despite having an open lane to the end zone, had given the Ravens a 20-13 lead with 4:50 to play in the third quarter. But after that run, the Ravens offense only managed to get two more first downs.
“Everything is about execution,” said Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith who had three catches for 33 yards. “They didn't do anything special. We stopped ourselves. … It shouldn't have been close. If we would have executed, it wouldn't have been a close game, but you've got to give credit when it's due. They found a way to win, but we'll go on to next week.”
Late in the second quarter, Flacco hit Anquan Boldin for back-to-back lengthy completions down the sideline, the second one going for a 28-yard touchdown pass and a 13-3 Ravens' lead. However, aside from that drive, the Ravens' fifth-year quarterback never looked comfortable against the league's top-ranked defense.
In a departure from his strong play at home this season, Flacco went 16-for-34 for 188 yards and the one touchdown to Boldin. His biggest miscue came early in the fourth quarter after an end zone interception and daring return by Reed had given the Ravens the ball at their own 27. On third-and-5, Flacco held onto the ball too long and was stripped by Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison.
Ziggy Hood recovered and it took four plays — the final one being a 7-yard touchdown pass from Batch to tight end Heath Miller — for the Steelers to tie the game.
“Everybody was covered downfield. I was getting ready to tuck it and chalk it up as a loss. The guy came around and hit my wrist … and just got it out. I tried to hold on but I couldn't,” Flacco said. “I think we hurt ourselves. That's the way I look at it.”
With the game tied, the Ravens ran four plays — none of which featured Rice who finished with just 13 total touches – before having to punt the ball back to the Steelers.
Pittsburgh, which had eight turnovers the week before in an ugly loss to the Cleveland Browns, got the ball at their own 15 with 6:14 to play. Batch (25-of-36 for 276 yards) hit Mike Wallace for gains of 15 and 7 yards.
Thriving with a short-passing game, Batch hit Antonio Brown for 4 and yards. Then came the drive's biggest play: a 10-yard completion to Wallace coupled by a roughing-the-passer penalty that moved the ball down to the Ravens' 19.
“It was a big mistake on my part for even making it a possible call and I just can't believe I put my teammates in that situation,” Kruger said.
With only one timeout remaining, thanks in part to Harbaugh admitted erring in challenging an incompletion early in the third quarter, the Ravens watched helplessly as the Steelers got into position for Suisham to kick the game-winning field goal.
“I know what this team is all about,” Boldin said. “A loss doesn't change who we are. We'll still go out, we'll win the AFC North like I said, and we'll be a force to reckon with when the playoffs come.”