The final group of Ravens started trickling out of the visiting locker room at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday evening, heading first to Baltimore and then into an offseason that started far earlier than it expected.
For the first time since 2007, the Ravens will be at home when the postseason begins, their season ending with a 34-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. With their elimination, the Ravens become the fourth reigning Super Bowl champion in the past eight years to not make the playoffs the following season.
The loss left Ravens fans, who had gathered at downtown establishments in Baltimore hoping to watch the team advance into the postseason, looking forward to next year.
The Ravens, meanwhile, struggled to deal with a feeling that many of them had never experienced. They reached the postseason five consecutive years under Ravens coach John Harbaugh and they had won a playoff game in each of those seasons.
"It's very unfortunate for us," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, the team's longest tenured player. "Since coach showed up here, we never felt like this — ever. It was the first time we've been left out, and it doesn't feel well. It's like the first heartbreak. You make sure you do the right things so this never happens again."
To make the playoffs for a league-best sixth straight year, the Ravens (8-8) entered the day needing a victory over the Bengals and either a loss by the Miami Dolphins or a loss by the San Diego Chargers. The New York Jets beat the Dolphins, but the Ravens couldn't do their part.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who signed a team-record, six-year, $120.6 million contract in March after leading the franchise to its second Super Bowl championship, threw three fourth quarter interceptions against the Bengals.
Flacco's struggles this season mirrored the rest of the team's and the Ravens never recreated the formula that carried them through their stunning Super Bowl XLVII run, which ended with a 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in February in New Orleans. Now, they'll be forced to watch the entire postseason, knowing that this year, they weren't quite good enough.
"It was obviously a very difficult, disappointing loss," Harbaugh said. "That's it, that ends it. It stings."
Ravens' fans everywhere felt the players' pain. Missy Dashiell, of Bel Air, sat dejected with her family at Mother's Federal Hill Grille as the final seconds ticked down on the loss to the Bengals.
"I think the city will embrace this team and believe," Dashiell said. "I believe we are a team of faith. It never went right for us. It was never easy. Things don't always work out, but you have to have patience and faith."
Glen Burnie resident Marc Walker thought the Ravens would finish with a 10-6 record but admitted that fans have been "spoiled all these years" with the organization's five consecutive trips to the postseason.
Other fans were less understanding. Asked for his reaction to the Ravens coming up short, Columbia's Matt Misiaszek said: "You can't put swear words in newspapers."
It will also make it nine years since the last time a Super Bowl winner has a won a playoff game the next year.
"We're the champions. The targets were on our backs," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "Everybody was coming to knock down the world champions. We didn't make the plays we needed to during the season."
The Ravens knew of the recent historical trends that they were up against when the season began. They also knew that they had undergone an unprecedented roster facelift for a Super Bowl champion as eight starters from that team departed in the offseason.
However, even with the dramatic turnover that included the retirement of linebacker Ray Lewis and the free agent exit of safety Ed Reed, no Ravens expected their season to end like this, with players gathering at the team facility on Monday for one final meeting and then heading their separate ways for the offseason.
"Playoffs are never a given," said defensive end Chris Canty, one of several veterans signed last offseason in the rebuilding of the Ravens' defense. "You have to fight very, very hard to get into the postseason. We made some plays this season, we won some games this season but ultimately our performance wasn't enough to get that done. I don't know if we could point to one thing. I just know collectively, we didn't do enough. It's disappointing because this is a hard-working group, it's a hard-working football team. It hurts, it hurts."
The next time the Ravens take the football field, they'll likely look like a dramatically different team again. They could have as many as 13 unrestricted free agents and the team's annual offseason battle to stay under the salary cap could result in several long-time Ravens getting let go.
But those decisions will be made in the ensuing weeks and in some cases, months. The Ravens had hoped to delay their offseason as long as possible but whether they were ready or not, it arrived late afternoon Sunday. As the players filed out of the locker room and onto an awaiting bus, they knew that their season and their Super Bowl defense were over.
"This is the feeling you don't want to feel," said Ravens running back Ray Rice, whose voice choked up as he spoke about how he fought through injuries during the most difficult season of his career."It's not a good feeling."
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun