The Ravens were one quarter away from celebrating another impressive road victory, whipping Tom Brady in his house again and putting a stranglehold on the AFC.
But the biggest fourth-quarter collapse of the John Harbaugh era led to the biggest kick in the gut of the season.
Failing to hold a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Ravens fell to the New England Patriots, 23-20, on Stephen Gostkowski's 35-yard field goal with 1:56 left in overtime.
An announced crowd of 68,756 at Gillette Stadium applauded loudly after watching the Patriots exact a small measure of revenge after the Ravens' playoff rout nine months ago. The Ravens, though, could only wring their hands over the final depressing 30 minutes of football, during which they gave up 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The Ravens' offense couldn't finish. The Ravens managed three first downs after taking a 20-10 lead with 14:53 left. Joe Flacco got stuffed on third-and-1 later in the fourth quarter, and the Ravens chose not to go for it on fourth down.
Their defense couldn't stop Brady when it needed to do so. The Ravens allowed scoring drives of 60 and 80 yards in the fourth quarter and let the Patriots tie the game in regulation on a possession that included first-and-20.
And their players couldn't remain composed. Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain shoved Patriots linebacker Jermaine Cunningham in overtime, which stalled the team's last series of the game and gave New England advantageous field position for the eventual game-winning drive.
"It's tough when you think you have the game won and you have opportunities to close it out," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's a little disappointing. We felt that we were right there to win the game and we just didn't capitalize on it."
The Ravens' three-game winning streak ended in surprising fashion. Since 2000, the Ravens had been 81-7 (.920) in games that they led after three quarters.
Maybe the fourth-quarter stumble can be chalked up to the brilliance of Brady. Maybe it was the result of the Patriots (4-1) coming off a bye (they've won eight straight after having off the previous week).
Either way, the Ravens' first loss since Sept. 19 cost them in the AFC North standings. The Ravens (4-2) dropped into second place, a half game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1).
"We're disappointed with the loss but we're certainly not discouraged in any way," coach John Harbaugh said. "We've lost games before and we'll bounce back. Our guys are a pretty resilient bunch."
The Ravens' offense seemed to bounce backward late in the game.
In the first three quarters, Flacco was 20 of 23 for 226 yards and two touchdowns. In the fourth quarter and overtime, he was seven of 12 for 59 yards. Only four of Flacco's passes were thrown in the direction of a wide receiver during that last span.
Asked why the Ravens weren't as aggressive in the second half, Flacco said, "I am not really the guy to ask there, but like I said, we had opportunities to do what we needed to do and win the game."
The Ravens produced 81 total yards in the fourth quarter and overtime after totaling 296 in the first three quarters.
"I think they covered us real well," Harbaugh said. "We've got to look at the tape to see if [Flacco] could have looked somewhere else at some point in time."
The Ravens' defense struggled at the same time. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Brady completed 16 of 24 passes for 156yards. It marked Brady's 30th career game-winning comeback.
"When I get into the fourth quarter and we're up 20-10 against Tom Brady, I'm still nervous," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "You can't relax and you can't settle. We did and we let them back into the game."
The Ravens took that 20-10 lead on the second play of the fourth quarter, when Billy Cundiff hit a 25-yard field goal. They had to settle for a field goal because Derrick Mason couldn't hold onto a third-down pass in the end zone (safety Patrick Chung popped him as soon as the ball arrived).
"If we scored a touchdown there," Flacco said, "it may have made a difference."
Less than four minutes later (and after Cundiff's kickoff out of bounds started the Patriots at their own 40), Brady made the Ravens pay, hitting Deion Branch on a
4-yard touchdown pass when the Ravens only rushed three players. Brady's first third-down completion inched New England back to 20-17.
The Ravens then faced their own third-down dilemma. With 1 yard to convert, Flacco was stopped for no gain on a quarterback sneak. Flacco said he didn't consider calling a timeout or an audible after seeing the Patriots stack the line, putting a player on either side of center Matt Birk.
"If we convert there, you never know," Flacco said. "Obviously, you see the ball that short, you might want to go for it on fourth down."
Harbaugh isn't second-guessing his decision to punt from his own 47-yard line.
"In hindsight, you could say you should have," Harbaugh said. "But right there the smart play was punting them right down in there and putting our defense out there to try to get a stop and get the ball back with good field position. I think that was a pretty solid decision."
Pinned back at their own 14, the Patriots moved the ball 80 yards by relying on Brady. He completed seven of eight passes for 79yards to set up Gostkowski's 24-yard, game-tying field goal with 1:51 left in the game.
"He is as good as anybody and better than most of all them," Harbaugh said of Brady.
It was a stalemate in overtime until Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko booted a 65-yard punt to put the Ravens at their own 19. A third-and-9 turned into third-and-19 when McClain was flagged for a personal foul. McClain said he pushed Cunningham because he was taunted.
"Retaliation always gets called," Harbaugh said. "That's the thing you've got to understand."
After the Ravens were forced to punt, Brady started the game-winning drive by hitting Branch for 23 yards. He then found Branch, who returned to New England after the Patriots traded Randy Moss, for 10yards to put New England in field-goal range.
Gostkowski's 35-yarder sliced inside the right upright to end the 3-hour, 41-minute marathon game.
Asked what would happen if the Ravens would see the Patriots again this season, linebacker Terrell Suggs said: "We already know that story. Do you really need me to answer that? We're a dangerous playoff team. We look forward to the rematch."
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