The heartbreak of what might have been

On a gray day that matched their mood, Baltimore football fans spent Monday with the two saddest words in the English language echoing in their heads: If only.

Psychologists call this counterfactual thinking, imagining an entirely different outcome if only for a different turn of events. It's why, they say, the Ravens' loss in the final minutes of the AFC championship on Sunday is so much more devastating than if it had been a blowout from the start.

If only, goes our counterfactual scenario, Billy Cundiff had made that 32-yard field goal, or Lee Evans had held on to that touchdown pass, the Ravens would be headed to the Super Bowl. Instead, the Ravens emptied their lockers two weeks before they once dreamed they might, and their fans began what surely will be an off-season's worth of mental calculations on how it might have been otherwise.

"When a bad event happens, we easily fall prey to counterfactual thinking, especially in sports," said Edward Hirt, a psychology professor at Indiana University who researches sports fandom. "You can do this with just about anything, but it's more emotion-provoking when things are really close, and you can imagine the outcome turning on a single event."

The fact that the game could so clearly have gone the other way will prove haunting, particularly since that's it for the season, he said.

"The problem with these counterfactual thoughts is you ruminate on them," Hirt said. "The hardest thing about it is, usually you can quickly go on to the next game during the season. But when it's the end of the season, it's hard to let go of it."

Ryan Langhauser can attest to that. The 25-year-old from Ellicott City attended the game in Foxborough, Mass., and returned home on a charter bus with other Ravens fans about 4 a.m. Monday.

"The walk to the bus was pretty awful," Langhauser said of making his way, in full Ravens gear and painted face, through the jubilant and jeering crowd of Patriots fans to the bus. "It was heartbreaking. We completely outplayed them; the fact is, we had the game in our hands."

They rode home in near complete silence, he said, although he and no doubt others were going over their personal if-onlys in their heads: If only the Evans catch had been reviewed, Langhauser said. If only coach John Harbaugh had called a time out before the Cundiff field-goal attempt.

"It's going to be a hard one to swallow for a while," he said. "I've been watching the Ravens since they came here; I was 10. I can't personally remember a loss like this, particularly one with so much on the line."

Paul Haridakis and Adam Earnheardt, communication professors who have researched fans' attachment to their teams, say Baltimoreans have particularly strong bonds with their football teams.

"You go all the way back to the Colts, there is this deep, rich history in Baltimore that is inescapable," said Earnheardt, a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

The fact that so many Colts fan clubs and the team's marching band stayed together during the years between the team's leaving for Indianapolis and the Ravens' arrival demonstrates how interwoven football is with Baltimore's identity, Haridakis said.

"There are a lot of different points of attachment to a team, and one point of attachment is the other fans," said Haridakis, a professor at Ohio's Kent State University. "When the city lost its team, to stay together was important.

"We identify so closely to our teams, and when they lose, it's like a blow to our identity," he said.

Darryl Despeaux, who heads a Ravens Roost fan club in Anne Arundel County, said he's had players tell him they've never been in a city where a team has had such loyal support. For him, it's all about family and tradition.

"I grew up a Colts fan, and my family always watched the games together," Despeaux, 51, said. "Our youngest is 15, and she's just a huge Ravens fan because that's how we are.

"It's inherited," the Glen Burnie resident said. "You inherit this tradition."

Now, Sunday's game becomes part of that shared legacy, a part of Baltimore's long and complicated sports history. Earnheardt said fans feel more connected to teams than ever today because of the rise of sports coverage and social media.

"When you think about it, all the players have Twitter accounts now, they all actively engage with their fans," he said. "Now, when Ray Lewis or Michael Oher retweets someone's comments on Twitter, that fan feels even more connected."

That Sunday's loss knocked the team out of a Super Bowl that will be held in Indianapolis only adds to the power of this particular turn of events, Hirt said.

"If you've already played it out in your mind, what could have been, 'we could have been in Indy,' and the history of all that," Hirt said, "that makes it all so bitter."