If the Ravens wanted to make their stamp on history last night at M&T; Bank Stadium, they succeeded. Just not the way they started out to, not in the way they had played for 56 1/2 minutes.
Instead of ending the New England Patriots' dream of an undefeated season, the Ravens wove the nightmare of one of the most egregious chokes in recent memory. It's fair to stick this loss with that label, regardless of whether the Patriots are at all beatable this season.
With a nation and a live audience riveted by their run at immortality, and with a 24-20 lead with 3:30 to go, the Ravens melted down into a purple-and-black puddle. Physically and mentally.
The Patriots find ways to beat you, but giving them ways to beat you is inexcusable.
That 27-24 loss was inexcusable. As in, the fact that it happened against a team considered one of the best ever to play isn't a good enough excuse.
Start with the moment they stopped the Patriots on fourth down and less than a yard to go at the Ravens' 30-yard line with 1:48 to go. Stopped Tom Brady cold, drove him back, drove the sellout crowd into a frenzy, drove the moment into Baltimore football lore likely forever.
Except that Rex Ryan called a timeout just before the snap. No play. Ray Lewis, who played his heart and every other organ out all night, emotions gushing throughout, leaped away from the play pumping his fists, then, as the realization of the timeout sunk in, he fell to his knees and grabbed both sides of his helmet.
Second chance to save the day - and the Ravens did it again, burying Heath Evans in the backfield. Again, an explosion of joy. Again, no play - a false start by Patriots backup right guard Russ Hochstein. Even their mistakes went in their favor. One more play - and now, it was Brady, after sitting all day waiting for someone to get open, racing upfield for a first down. Not good.
Samari Rolle made it worse, called for illegal contact when he dragged Randy Moss down on top of him. Five more yards, and suddenly, in the span of 10 seconds of game time and three snaps, the Patriots were 18 yards from taking the lead.
Three plays later, and with 55 seconds to go, the Patriots faced fourth-and-five at the 13. Brady's pass sailed too high in the end zone for Ben Watson, bracketed by Dawan Landry behind and Jamaine Winborne in front. Again, celebration time. Again, stop the music. Winborne held Watson coming across the middle. The Ravens complained at the time and later in the locker room. But it was the right call. And it was first-and-goal at the 8.
It was so excruciating. It was also, by then, inevitable. The dagger sank in on the next play: Brady's touchdown pass - not even to one of the new wide receivers who have elevated this offense to one for the ages, Moss or Wes Welker or Donte Stallworth. To one of the holdovers, Jabar Gaffney, tiptoeing on the left side of the end zone.
The crowd was stunned into silence.
The Ravens, though, were stunned into stupidity. That description, in so many words, came directly from coach Brian Billick, who said of the ensuing sequence: "You've just got to be smarter than that. Can't be a dumb football player."
He said he told that to Bart Scott, who snapped. Flags flew from all corners of the end zone after Gaffney scored, as Scott was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. Scott picked up a flag, got a running start and hurled it toward the stands. (He might have had a legitimate reason; Rolle said Scott overheard an official insulting him, and he reacted).
Another flurry of flags. Another unsportsmanlike conduct. To be assessed on the kickoff. Destroying any attempt to get downfield to try to tie the game in the final 44 seconds with a timeout left - an eternity, as long as the other team isn't kicking off from your 40. (Actually the 35 because the Ravens also jumped offside on the extra-point try. When it rains, and is windy and cold, it pours.)
After throwing the biggest scare into the Patriots all season, after wriggling their way out of jam after jam, after the defense rose up and Kyle Boller played most of the game above himself and Brady played all night a split-second off rhythm and the line blew craters through the Patriots defense to escort Willis McGahee up and downfield - after all that, the Ravens brainlocked.
It would have been one of the great memories of this NFL season and one of the best this city has ever produced.
And in just 3 minutes, 30 seconds of game time, they gave it away.