As the Ravens closed out one of the most disastrous seasons in team history, even their final celebration might have been in vain.
By outlasting the uninspired Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-21, the Ravens traded their first win in 76 days for sliding down in the NFL draft.
With a loss, the Ravens would have had picked at No. 6. Now, after ending the franchise-record losing streak at nine, the Ravens will draft No. 8. So, was the win over their hated AFC North rival worth it?
"It was an outstanding win," coach Brian Billick said. "I've been in this league for 20-plus years now, and I've never ever, ever heard anybody allude to wanting to lose a game for draft position. I've never heard it from a player, coach, general manager, and I don't know that I ever will."
With nearly half of the announced 71,353 waving bright yellow Terrible Towels, it was clear Steelers fans showed up at M&T Bank Stadium - braving a steady rain that fell throughout the game - but their team did not.
With their minds seemingly on next weekend's playoffs, the Steelers (10-6) allowed the Ravens' no-name roster to look like a Pro Bowl one.
Reserve running backs Musa Smith and Cory Ross marched their way to 155 rushing yards. Which running backs?
Often-criticized cornerback David Pittman came up with a timely interception in the first half and ended the Steelers' potential game-winning drive with a pick with 1:04 left in the game. That David Pittman?
And Troy Smith made plays when he needed to at critical moments, whether it was throwing (16-for-27 for 171 yards and one touchdown) or running (23 yards). The same quarterback who was nearly shut out in Seattle two weeks ago?
By the end of this glorified preseason game, the Ravens had out-gained the Steelers, 334-264, and dominated time of possession (36:42 to 23:18).
"It felt good," said receiver Derrick Mason, who extended his team single-season record with his 103rd catch. "I took a deep breath once we got that [fourth-quarter] interception. All that frustration just came out."
Pittsburgh, which will be the AFC's No. 4 seed in the playoffs, rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and safety Troy Polamalu so they will be ready for Saturday's wild-card game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Ravens (5-11), who ended a franchise-record nine-game losing streak and avoided matching the worst record in their existence, can only think of what might have been.
If the Ravens had lost, they would have ended up tied with four other 4-12 teams (the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders). The Ravens would have had the same strength of schedule as the Jets but would have had the higher draft spot because of the next tiebreaker. (The Ravens had a worse conference record.)
But the only scenario the Ravens players wanted to contemplate was a season lost to injuries.
"You enjoy the win, but you look back and say, woulda, coulda, shoulda," linebacker Bart Scott said. "It's one of those things that hurts because you knew you had a quality football team, but we weren't able to put that football team on the field this year."
The Steelers made some of the undisciplined mistakes that in many ways defined the Ravens during their losing streak.
After Pittsburgh fumbled the opening kickoff, the Ravens capitalized with a 2-yard touchdown run by Musa Smith. It marked the first time since Nov. 18 the Ravens had converted a turnover into points.
The Ravens increased the lead to 10-0 on a 28-yard field goal by Matt Stover, capping a drive that was helped by an unnecessary-roughness penalty on Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who hit Troy Smith after Smith had handed off the ball.
The Ravens extended their advantage to 17-0 in the second quarter, when Ross scored on a 32-yard run - after faking out safety Anthony Smith at the 15-yard line.
In a season when nothing came easy for the Ravens, the Steelers put a scare into the AFC North's last-place team in the fourth quarter. Charlie Batch's touchdown passes to Santonio Holmes (59 yards) and Cedrick Wilson (7 yards) closed Pittsburgh to 27-21 with 3:36 left.
But Batch's desperation throw deep downfield was picked off by Pittman, who before yesterday had never had an interception since being selected in the third round in 2006.
"I honestly felt like we would not be denied," Troy Smith said. "The season has been long and drawn out. Today, there was something special about the feel, something special about everything."
As the game wound down, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden was behind the bench, getting pictures taken with his wife, Kema, and 2-year-old son, Jayden.
The 11-time Pro Bowl lineman has said he will take some time before deciding whether he will retire, but there was a feeling this was his farewell game.
"It's been a pleasure playing for this city, this team, these fans," Ogden said. "This city and me, we've grown together with this team. So I'm just grateful to have been a part of it."
If this was his last game, Ogden said, "Not a bad way to end it."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun