A hard work week had an unsatisfying conclusion last night at M&T; Bank Stadium, where the Ravens were kicked out of the NFL playoffs by the Tennessee Titans.
A last-minute, 46-yard field goal by a 44-year-old handed a 20-17 wild-card game loss to the youngest squad to make the 12-team postseason. The result ended the Ravens' dreams of repeating their performance of three seasons ago, when they brought the Super Bowl trophy to Baltimore.
"It's always disappointing to come this far and not win," coach Brian Billick said. "Every team in the playoffs, except for one, is going to come away with this feeling, and it's not a good one."
Six nights after they completed the regular season with an overtime win over bitter rival Pittsburgh, the Ravens faced another familiar foe and said farewell to the man who returned the NFL to Baltimore.
The Titans broke a five-game losing streak to the Ravens and ended the brief but rewarding Art Modell era in Baltimore. The owner moved his franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore in February 1996, and five years later the Ravens were Super Bowl XXXV champions. Modell will sell his stake in the team to minority owner Steve Bisciotti in April.
That 1996 team won with defense and a bruising ground game. This version of the Ravens used the same formula, but it was disrupted last night. While the defense produced Baltimore's first touchdown, a 56-yard interception return by Will Demps, pro football's most productive running back was shut down by the Titans.
Jamal Lewis began the week by going over 2,000 yards for the season against Pittsburgh. He ended with a season-low 35 yards on 14 carries, as the NFL's best run defense forced the Ravens to throw. At one point in the second quarter, the Titans had 151 yards offense, compared with 14 for the Ravens, but quarterback Anthony Wright moved Baltimore 55 yards to set up a go-ahead field goal by Matt Stover and give the Ravens a 10-7 lead with 1:55 left in the first half.
After league co-Most Valuable Player Steve McNair's second touchdown pass and a Gary Anderson field goal put Tennessee on top 17-10, Wright led a stirring 71-yard drive that finished with a 35-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap.
That tied the game at 17 with 4:33 left, but the Ravens couldn't take advantage of a Chris McAlister interception, and the Titans got one last chance. Anderson, the second-oldest player in the league, kicked the field goal to end a drive that was aided by the Ravens' eighth - and most costly - penalty of the game: A roughing infraction by offensive lineman Orlando Brown helped set up the Titans in good field position.
Had the Ravens won, they would have spent today monitoring the other AFC wild-card game, waiting to make travel plans for a divisional playoff game at New England or Kansas City. Instead, a team that produced the NFL's Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year in Jamal Lewis and Ray Lewis, respectively, will have to wait until next year.
"No matter how young we are, those guys fought to the last field goal," Ray Lewis said. "So when you say 'close,' I think we're scary close."
A crowd of 69,452 basked in a balmy game-time temperature of 63 degrees but was quieted when the Titans scored on their first possession. After Tennessee also got the last word, fans seemed nearly as devastated as the players in the locker room.
"We came in expecting to get a touchdown from our defense and scratch one out on offense, and hope that holds up," said Tom Dunn, 47, of Baldwin. "We shot ourselves in the foot though, and Zeus [Brown] killed us."
Larry Richardson, 46, of Ellicott City, echoed Dunn's complaints. He also thought that Ravens fans might have been a "little overconfident."
"It seemed like people were more involved in the Pittsburgh game," Richardson said. "I think people may have tailgated a little too much for this one."