Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon sat deep in his locker, his elbow leaning on a stool as he stared out into a quiet locker room. Eric Weddle stayed slumped in front of his locker long after many of his teammates had gone home, his eyes fixated on the ground. Fellow Ravens safety Tony Jefferson broke into tears as he discussed how much this season meant to him and just how badly it hurt for it to end this way.
The player that summed up the devastation is the one who has been a Raven the longest. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs paused several times as he struggled to find the right words to describe a 31-27 defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday before an announced 70,507 at frigid M&T Bank Stadium, a game he labeled the most difficult regular-season loss of his 15-year career.
“We went from having all our dreams come true to them going away in a matter of seconds,” Suggs said. “It’s like a bad dream. You can’t believe it happened to us like this.”
The Ravens waited over a year for this moment, weathering a summer full of injuries and roster defections, one of the worst stretches of offensive football in team history and a 4-5 start. Two different 14-point deficits to the Bengals on Sunday added to the long list of obstacles that the Ravens overcame this season.
All they had to do to return the playoffs for the seventh time in head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco’s 10 seasons was stop the Bengals on fourth-and-12 from their own 49-yard line with 53 seconds remaining. One stop and the Ravens, who trailed 17-3 late in the second quarter and 24-10 early in the third, were headed to Kansas City to face the Chiefs next weekend as the fifth seed and the first AFC wild-card winner.
The Ravens now have more than six months to lament their inability to get that final stop with a playoff berth on the line. A little more than a year after they saw their AFC North title hopes and postseason chances dashed in Week 17 when Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown reached over the goal line for the winning touchdown with seconds to play, the Ravens allowed Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to connect with Tyler Boyd on a 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-12 with 44 seconds remaining.
“It takes us right back to last year,” Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “It stinks to give up a touchdown on the last play basically and miss the playoffs. It’s just another year for us to hear [about] it all year until next season.”
Trailing by four, the Ravens had the ball at their own 27 with all three timeouts and 38 seconds remaining. However, on fourth-and-14, Flacco threw underneath to tight end Benjamin Watson, who was tackled a yard short of the first down. The Bengals kneeled to run off the final 14 seconds, content to finish the season 7-9 and deal the Ravens a crushing blow while potentially sending their long-time coach Marvin Lewis out with a victory.
“It’s the name of the game, man,” said Flacco, who had hoped that his 6-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace with 8:48 remaining would stand as the winning score. “Stuff like that happens. Credit the other team, and obviously it’s tough for us to deal with right now. We didn’t play perfect football, but we fought back into that game, and there’s a lot of different emotions in that sense. You’ve got to be proud of the way we fought back, even though it wasn’t perfect. At the same time, we have to deal with the fact that we didn’t get it done.”
The Ravens made the playoffs for five consecutive seasons after Harbaugh and Flacco arrived in 2008. That run culminated with their win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 regular season. But not lost in the suddenness of Sunday’s defeat was that the Ravens have missed the postseason for three consecutive seasons and in four of the past five after winning their second Super Bowl.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with a bunch of men — players and coaches — than I have with this team all year,” Harbaugh said. “I have never enjoyed coaching a team more, as a head coach or an assistant. I’ve never had a bunch of guys that didn’t turn from adversity like these guys.”
About an hour after Sunday’s game, the Ravens still seemed to be in a state of shock that they couldn’t complete the job. They had won five of six games to put themselves in a scenario in which they could secure a wild-card berth with either a victory over the Bengals, or a Buffalo Bills loss to the Miami Dolphins or a Tennessee Titans loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But things started horribly for the team which again was playing in front of many empty seats in its downtown stadium. The Ravens allowed an eight-play, 78-yard scoring drive, ending on a 1-yard touchdown pass by Dalton to tight end Tyler Kroft, on the game’s first drive. As the Bills and Titans were building two-possession advantages many miles away, Kroft caught another touchdown late in the second quarter to give the Bengals a 14-3 lead.
Only because of a splendid 19-second sequence late in the second quarter by kick returner-wide receiver Chris Moore — he had an 87-yard return and then a 6-yard touchdown catch on the next play — did the Ravens enter the locker room not hopelessly behind. They trailed 17-10 at halftime despite getting just two first downs in the first half and being outgained 268-61.
When the Ravens returned to the field for the second half, they knew their likely only remaining path to a playoff berth was through beating the Bengals. That became increasingly difficult when Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard intercepted a pass by Flacco that Moore bobbled and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown. That gave the Bengals a 24-10 lead with just over 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Their playoff hopes slipping away, the Ravens answered immediately with a brilliant cutback 17-yard touchdown run by Alex Collins on fourth-and-3. The defense got a quick three-and-out and Justin Tucker kicked a 34-yard field goal to make it 24-20 early in the fourth quarter.
When Flacco hit Wallace for the 6-yard score, the Ravens had scored 17 consecutive points and led 27-24. The two teams exchanged punts before the Bengals got the ball at their own 10, trailing by three with 2:43 to play and possessing just one timeout.
Weddle thought he had the game-securing touchdown, but Marlon Humphrey was called for holding on the play. Four plays later, the Ravens forced the Bengals into fourth-and-12.
They had played man-to-man defense throughout the drive, but they opted to drop into zone on fourth-down. On the run, Dalton hit Boyd, who found space between defensive backs Maurice Canady and Jefferson. Boyd then broke a tackle and sprinted to the end zone.
Several Ravens said that they didn’t know what went wrong on the decisive play, but they surely know that they’ll have all season to relive it.