Narrow defeat leaves Ravens hmming along

The Baltimore Sun

In a bruising game in which every hit seemed to bring a rousing oooh or an appreciative aah, there was only one sound to be heard as stunned fans filed out of M&T; Bank Stadium: a curious hmm.

As in: Hmm, do I know the NFL rules as well as I thought? Or, hmm, do the officials?

And when the shocked Ravens players and bewildered Ravens coaches awake this morning: Hmm, what exactly does this all mean moving forward?

Make no mistake, they have no choice but to move forward. Sure, plenty of whining and questioning might be in order, but yesterday's final result won't change.

I don't understand how the officials felt they had sufficient evidence to overturn the call on the field and award Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes the winning touchdown in the game's final minute. Replays that I saw - and that every soul not wearing black-and-white stripes saw - seemed to show that Holmes might've been close to a touchdown. But nothing was conclusive.

"We're moving on," coach John Harbaugh said later.

Until the final two minutes of that game, so much of the Ravens' performance in the controversial 13-9 loss to the Steelers was reminiscent of the Baltimore team that won the Super Bowl eight years ago.

In fact, if you remember back to 2000, do you recall the final score of the Ravens' second meeting with the Steelers? It was 9-6.

And do you know the score in those waning moments yesterday - before the seven-man officiating crew earned its way onto "Wanted" posters across Maryland? Before the officials began interpreting the rule book like a grade-school student translating Latin?

It was 9-6.

So is this a team destined to follow in the footsteps of the greatest Ravens team ever? Or is it one that's snakebitten, destined to come close to replicating the franchise's finest day, but ultimately fall just short?

We'll know more in a couple of weeks, but as it stands now, the standings indicate that despite great strides and impressive growth, there's still a giant line separating the Ravens from the league's elite teams. Yesterday was the chance to cross over, but instead, the Ravens will now have to claw their way into the playoffs via a wild-card bid. With two games remaining, the Indianapolis Colts are 10-4 and the Ravens are one of three teams with 9-5 records. (If the season ended today, the Ravens would hold tie-breakers over the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. The New York Jets are also 9-5.)

"Obviously disappointing loss," Harbaugh said last night. "In some ways, heartbreaking."

Actually, heartbreaking in just about every way. Losing to yet another strong opponent this late in the season muddles the Ravens' postseason forecast.

The idea is to peak in late December and January. In a game that could've validated the Ravens' position as a contender, the loss instead reinforces some of the doubts surrounding them.

These Ravens, dominant against the likes of the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals, have struggled nearly every time a formidable foe has lined up on the opposing sideline. They might feast on guppies, but they're little more than live bait for the league's sharks. Of the nine opponents the Ravens have beaten this season, only Miami and the Philadelphia Eagles currently have records above .500. When they've faced elite teams - Steelers, Colts, New York Giants and Tennessee Titans - the result has always been a loss. (Though it's worth noting that three of those were by four points or fewer.)

The Super Bowl team in 2000 won its final seven games of the regular season. When the playoffs began, they were a steamroller teetering atop a mountain, needing just a ref's whistle to push them downhill.

These Ravens are still in favorable position for the postseason, but they have to perform these next two weeks. Not only do they need to win, but they also need to shrug off yesterday's loss and grasp some of the momentum that helped them win six of their past eight games.

In their favor is emotion and scheduling. You get the sense that yesterday's perceived injustice might simply motivate this team more. Plus, they close the regular season against two teams that could potentially provide some coasting into the playoffs.

Next weekend, though they travel to Dallas, they'll face a Cowboys team that's coming apart at the seams. The Ravens close the season hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags have been a disappointment this season, though they did win at Indianapolis this season and squeaked by the Green Bay Packers at home yesterday.

To even have a chance, players and coaches will have to leave the moaning to fans and the protesting to the front office. They'll have to realize they can't change the final two minutes of the game; they can affect only their future.

"Keep going," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Win, lose or draw. The season still has two games."

The championship team of 2000 lost, 9-6, to the Steelers. It then used that as fuel. Didn't lose another game, in fact.

This season's squad had a chance to win, 9-6, over the Steelers. Instead, it lost. It must now use that fuel. Can't lose another game, in fact.

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