CINCINNATI — Before they left the visiting locker room at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday afternoon, the Ravens spoke through clenched teeth and spouted cliches about coming up one play short and moving on to Pittsburgh. Some players even muttered to nobody in particular.
"The guys fought hard and played their hearts out," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's all I've got to say."
A pulsating 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in front of an announced 55,711 dropped the Ravens into second place and left them grappling with a series of emotions. Wide receiver Steve Smith, who was involved in one of the game's most critical plays, claimed he wasn't disappointed, upset or even frustrated. He was just exhausted.
But plenty of his teammates were dealing with all of the stated emotions after watching Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton score the game-winning touchdown on a sneak play on fourth-and-goal from the Ravens' 1. The Ravens stopped Dalton's initial surge, but the secondary push got Dalton into the end zone and gave the Bengals a 27-24 lead with 57 seconds to play.
In the last seven minutes of the game, the Ravens caused two turnovers, ran off 10 consecutive points, gave up a go-ahead touchdown and thought they had responded with the game-winning score. However, Joe Flacco's 80-yard touchdown pass to Smith with 32 seconds remaining was nullified when an official flagged the Ravens wide receiver for pass interference.
"I got to admit, offensive pass interference, that's a pretty [gutsy] call considering the situation," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "But we're over it. Let's get ready for Pittsburgh."
Two plays after the call on Smith, the Bengals (4-2-1) stopped the Ravens on fourth down and celebrated sweeping the season series between the two teams.
The Ravens fell to 5-3 with a matchup against the third-place Steelers next. They've now dropped five of their past six games in Cincinnati, and their latest defeat came with injuries to several key players, including cornerback Jimmy Smith and wide receiver Michael Campanaro (River Hill). The Bengals, meanwhile, won their first game in four October tries, which was enough to get them back into first place.
"This was a movie," Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said. "It was."
It certainly had its share of twists and turns and dramatic moments, and a clear antagonist, at least if in the minds of Ravens fans -- the referees. On what will surely be the most discussed play of a wild game, Flacco rolled out of the pocket, bought some time and then launched a throw deep down the right sideline.
Smith and Bengals safety George Iloka were jockeying for position when Smith extended his arms and knocked Iloka to the turf. Smith turned around and headed unabated to the end zone while side judge Rick Patterson dropped a flag near where Iloka had been knocked down. The entire Bengals sideline broke into celebration, knowing that the call was going to go their way.
"Joe threw a great ball, things happened," Smith said. "You know, ultimately, you hope you don't allow plays like that to dictate the determination of a win or loss. It happens. You know, [I'm] not disappointed, not upset, not frustrated, just exhausted and looking forward to get the opportunity to play next week."
Asked if he had gotten a chance to speak to the official who made the call, Smith said: "Did you just listen to what I said?"
Harbaugh was caught by television cameras telling an official that the call was "embarrassing." However, he provided no such sound bite for reporters after the game, saying only when asked about the play that, "I'm not allowed to answer that question." Presumably, he saved himself from a league-imposed fine for criticizing the officials.
Quite predictably, Iloka said he felt the right call was made.
"He doesn't allow me to jump. He pushed me and as much as they call defensive [pass interference], that was a great call, in my opinion," he said. "They should call it every time. He called it … so we were on the same page."
The feeling by some Ravens was that Iloka flopped and sold the call. Regardless, it was clear that Smith initiated the contact, and the reality was that the Ravens shouldn't have needed a near Hail Mary touchdown catch in the first place.
But for extended stretches, the Ravens just didn't play well enough to beat a quality team on the road. Flacco struggled again against the Bengals, going just 17 of 34 for 195 yards and throwing two interceptions. In 14 career games against the Bengals, Flacco has thrown 13 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
His two interceptions came in a six-minute stretch of the third quarter, the first leading to a 1-yard touchdown run by Giovani Bernard and the second resulting in a 32-yard field goal by Mike Nugent. After the miscues, the Bengals had a 17-6 lead.
"If we don't turn the ball over, then we're going to be a tough team to beat," said Flacco, who also lamented the offense getting stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the first quarter. "The fact that we had those [interceptions] right there, I think our defense stood strong and did their job. I put them in some bad positions."
Just when it appeared the Bengals were set to make it a two-possession game about midway through the final quarter, Haloti Ngata sacked Dalton and stripped him of the ball. Ravens middle linebacker Daryl Smith scooped it up and wasn't tackled until he reached the Bengals' 8-yard line.
On the next play, rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro scored on his second touchdown run of the half, this one giving the Ravens a 21-20 lead. An interception of Dalton by C.J. Mosley on the next play from scrimmage led to Justin Tucker's 53-yard field goal.
After all that, the Ravens had a 24-20 lead and just under four minutes to play. But on third-and-10 from the Bengals' 20, Dalton hit Mohamed Sanu for a 53-yard gain down the sideline. Both cornerback Dominique Franks and safety Terrence Brooks were beaten on the play.
"Like others say, one play doesn't make the game, but in my mind, I feel like I should have made that play," Brooks said. "I've made that play a thousand times. It's something that is unacceptable in my book."
Relying primarily on rookie running back Jeremy Hill and a 13-yard completion to Greg Little, the Bengals set up a third-and-goal from the Ravens' 1. Ngata stopped Hill on the first play, but on fourth down, Dalton called an audible into a running play and pushed his way into the end zone. The Ravens suspected it was coming, but couldn't stop it anyway.
"This one is pretty tough, but we are the best in the league at getting over losses like this," Suggs said. "We never worry about it too much. We'll just continue to play football, get ready for Pittsburgh."