Nearly 23 years after they left Baltimore, the Colts didn't crush the hearts of this city's football fans yesterday.
The Ravens' offense and Steve McNair did.
In one of the worst games of the season by the resurgent attack and their veteran quarterback, the second-seeded Ravens watched their Super Bowl dream fall apart in a 15-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff game at a raucous M&T Bank Stadium.
The city's NFL record crowd of 71,162 searching for revenge - or "Ravenge" as one end-zone sign read - felt the same sting from March 1984, when the Colts sneaked out of town to move to Indianapolis.
The loss proved even more stunning because of the haphazard play of McNair, who had helped transform the Ravens from an underachieving team to one of the league's best. The former NFL Most Valuable Player struggled mightily, throwing two interceptions (including a critical one in the red zone) and fumbling on his final play.
"To end on a shorter note than you intended ... it's very heartbreaking," McNair said. "Do I feel bad? Of course I feel bad. I feel bad that we lost. I feel the way I played. There can only be one champion. Unfortunately, this year isn't our year."
The Ravens' third straight playoff loss abruptly ended a season in which they set the team record for regular-season wins (13) and earned their highest postseason seeding ever.
The third-seeded Colts, who were playing their first playoff game in Baltimore since 1977, will advance to face the winner of today's New England-San Diego game.
As the Ravens walked off the field and into the locker room, the players filed in one-by-one in silence, knowing how they let themselves down as well as the passionate fans who wanted closure with their painful Colts past.
"This football team is as disappointed as our fans are, which is matched tenfold by the players," coach Brian Billick said. "This team appreciates our fans. They were deserving of better than that, but it just wasn't going to happen."
It wasn't going to happen because the offense failed to capitalize on a stellar performance by the defense, which held the Colts out of the end zone and limited them to 261 yards. The Ravens, who had experienced a renaissance since Billick took over the play-calling three months ago, looked more like the one that traditionally plodded.
The Ravens managed just one possession in the red zone, which ended with a McNair turnover. They failed to convert nine of 11 third downs. And they turned the ball over four times, two of which led to field goals.
The frustration was evident during and after the game. After McNair's second interception, offensive tackle threw his helmet toward the sideline when walking off the field. And later, receiver Derrick Mason vented in the locker room, saying he was "unappreciated" in the offense.
"If you don't win a Super Bowl ... it means nothing," Mason said. "If you can't win a playoff game, all that you've done in the regular season means nothing. This is what people will remember."
What people will remember is an offense contained by a much-maligned Colts defense. This is the fewest points Indianapolis has allowed since December 2005, when it faced McNair and the Tennessee Titans.
"Our defense played great and they gave us a lot of opportunities," said McNair, who was 18-for-29 for 173 yards and a quarterback rating of 49.9. "We didn't take advantage of those opportunities and it starts with the quarterback. When you get in that position, you have to go out and maintain the momentum that the defense gave us. We didn't do it offensively due to the turnovers we had."
The pivotal moment of the game came early in the second quarter after safety made an interception and set up the offense at midfield only down 6-3.
Marching down the field on the strong running of Jamal Lewis, the Ravens had a chance to either tie or take the lead by moving to the Indianapolis 3-yard line. But on third-and-goal, McNair was late on a throw to Heap in the end zone and was intercepted by rookie Antoine Bethea.
It marked McNair's third interception in the red zone this season.
Backed up at their own 1, the Colts went 65 yards on 13 plays, a drive that ate up six minutes. The reward was Adam Vinatieri's 51-yard field goal, which hit softly off the crossbar and ricocheted over to extend the lead to 9-3.
The Ravens never got any closer the rest of the game.
"Obviously, it was very disappointing at that point in the game to not come away with the touchdown and change the temperament of the game," Billick said.
The Ravens, who haven't won a playoff game since January 2002, seemed to revert back to that old identity of ragged offense and fearsome defense.
Proving why they were the NFL's top-ranked defense, the Ravens only allowed Indianapolis in the red zone twice and forced it to settle for five field goals.
"You couldn't tell me coming in here we would hold the Colts to no touchdowns and lose," said linebacker , a pending free agent who could have played his final game with the Ravens. "I would take that any day."
With pressure up front and ball-hawking defenders in the back, the Ravens harried Manning, who was 15-for-30 for 170 yards (39.6 quarterback rating).
"We knew what they were going to do when they were going to do it for the most part," said Reed, who picked off Manning twice.
The Ravens now have to carry the pain of this game for the next eight months before the start of next season.
With four starters expected to be free agents (Thomas, running back Jamal Lewis, offensive tackle Tony Pashos and fullback Ovie Mughelli), this team should remain mostly intact and use this experience to make another run at the Super Bowl.
"This is a bitter taste," McNair said. "We've got to live [with] this the whole offseason. I think we're going to be even more hungry. We had a good run for the first year I was here. And we're looking for better things."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun