The ball seemed to hang in the air forever, slowly bouncing around the yellow field-goal posts like a misshapen leather pinball. The game clock already had hit zeros, and, within minutes, players would prematurely fill the locker rooms while fans prematurely filled the parking lots.
If football truly were poetry - if Billy Collins or the ghost of Emily Dickinson had seats reserved in the press box and the playbooks were filled with pages of metaphors - that ball would've slowly fallen to the earth with two different fates scripted on either side of the crossbar.
We know now that the Cleveland Browns' last-second field goal bounced out, and for a few brief moments, the Ravens had tasted victory for the first time in more than a month. But while the party flowed outside of M&T; Bank Stadium, officials conferred, reversed their call and ruled the kick good. The Browns would need a single drive in overtime and one more field goal. Suddenly, the Ravens had lost for the fourth time in a row, 33-30.
But football is not poetry. A single football did not decide the Ravens' fate yesterday, no more than it dictates their fate moving forward.
The conspiracy theorists surely are howling this morning, certain that the game's officiating crew broke NFL rules that prohibit the review of field goals. Even though referee Pete Morelli denied reviewing footage of the kick, video seems to show two officials ducking under the review hood, with one apparently donning a headset. About five minutes later, they appeared on the field and reversed the call.
The kick had bounced off the left upright and fully crossed the crossbar before hitting the curved support behind the crossbar and kicking back out onto the field. The kick was good. The Ravens' hopes dashed.
"[We] can't buy a break," Ravens defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "It's like anything that can go wrong, goes wrong for us."
While the NFL should investigate and find out why a referee's words don't seem to match his actions, there's little point in the Ravens casting themselves as victims. They lost yesterday's game in the first half (38 yards of offense, just two first downs and zero offensive points), not in those waning moments. Anyone pinning the loss on the officials should remember that they got the call right, and the most deserving team won.
"It's not like we won this game on a fluke," Browns wide receiver Joe Jurevicius said. "The field goal was good. The officials just corrected their call."
No matter what side of the crossbar that ball eventually landed on, nothing the Ravens did yesterday inspired much hope for the final six weeks of the season. They could have eked out an unjust win against the Browns and improved to 1-4 in the AFC North, and would anyone feel much better about the future and the direction of this team?
Yesterday marked the last reasonable opportunity for the Ravens to turn their season around. Show some life against the Browns in a home game with a new starting quarterback, and just maybe there would be reason to think this team was capable of something over the final stretch of the season.
A team that relearns every week how important it is to control the ball turned it over three times in the game's first 10 minutes.
Facing the NFL's second-worst pass defense, Boller didn't have a completion until the second quarter, and the offense didn't have a first down until 1:08 was remaining in the first half.
It's hard to pin too much blame on Boller early on. The Browns entered the game ranked 29th in the NFL, averaging barely a sack a game. Boller was sacked six times yesterday and spent much of the afternoon scrambling in the pocket or lying on his back, tracking the sun's path across the Baltimore sky.
Boller is tough and gritty and finds himself in a no-win position. Despite some misleading final stats, there was nothing about yesterday's game that suggests that he is the "answer" at quarterback. But one thing that didn't change is that approaching a very difficult stretch of opponents, Boller remains the "only option."
This season, the Ravens haven't notched a single victory against a team with a winning record. Only one of their final six opponents has a losing record.
You could reasonably suggest that had the Browns' field goal at the end of regulation legitimately bounced out - had the officials' initial ruling been the correct one - the Ravens would carry a different attitude and a newfound confidence into their remaining games. We'll never know.
What we do know is that yesterday's loss was utterly deflating. After the game, players who normally can talk until every TV news camera has run out of battery power instead walked out of the locker room solemn, their heads hanging as low as their hearts.
Their voices - their emotions - those were somewhere, still hanging in the air, bouncing around those yellow field-goal posts. Yeah, maybe it sounds like a metaphor after all.
But if there's really some poetry to this star-crossed season - if a bouncing ball could choose a team's fate - a poet would make clear that yesterday's disappointment was merely foreshadowing deeper heartbreak to come.