This is how it was going to end one way or another, the ball in Joe Flacco's hand, with an opportunity to again knock the powerful New England Patriots out of the playoffs staring the Ravens in the face.
The Ravens were 36 yards from the end zone and the potential go-ahead score and had less than two minutes to work, but at the time, that didn't seem like much for Flacco, who was in the process of putting together another postseason masterpiece.
Flacco and the Ravens had gotten to this point — overcoming numerous injuries and off-the-field issues to make the playoffs, dominating the Pittsburgh Steelers on their home field in the wild-card round and building a two-touchdown lead against the heavily-favored Patriots Saturday — by refusing to play it safe.
It was that philosophy — and a leaky secondary — that finally doomed them. Flacco had Marlon Brown open in the flat, but instead tried to complete a pass to Torrey Smith in the end zone. The pass was interecepted by Patriots safety Duron Harmon and when Flacco's Hail Mary attempt was batted down moments later, the Ravens' 2014 season was over. The Patriots won, 35-31, in front of an announced 68,756 at frigid Gillette Stadium, adding another scintillating chapter to the teams' playoff rivalry.
“I took my shot and it just didn't work out, didn't get it there,” said Flacco, who threw four touchdown passes, but needed one more.
The top-seeded Patriots avenged two previous playoff losses to the Ravens, the last one coming in the 2013 AFC championship game, to qualify for the conference championship for a fourth straight year. They'll host the winner of Sunday's game between the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts next Sunday.
Meanwhile, for the Ravens, it was a bitter end to a tumultuous campaign, an inability to hold two different 14-point leads and finish off the Patriots likely making for a long offseason.
“I can't believe it's over,” said Ravens tight end Owen Daniels, who caught one touchdown pass but watched a second glance off his hands in the fourth quarter. The Ravens settled for a 25-yard field goal.
“We had a great game plan going in offensively and we had to make some adjustments to what they were doing. Joe played outstanding, the offensive line played great,” Daniels said. “We just needed to make a couple of more plays. It's hard to say that when you score 31 points, but there was a couple out there that we needed to make.”
The Ravens, who were bidding for their fourth AFC championship appearance in head coach John Harbaugh's seven seasons, did everything they wanted to do against the Patriots, dominating the line of scrimmage, making New England one dimensional on offense and rendering an improved defense helpless at times to stop Flacco and company.
The Ravens had a 28-14 lead midway through the third quarter at an eerily silent Gillette Stadium. But like he's done so many times before, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took over the game, finding holes all over the Ravens' patchwork secondary and neutralizing their pass rush with a quick release.
Brady threw two touchdown passes in the final 22 minutes — and wide receiver Julian Edelman threw another to Danny Amendola on a trick play — to complete the comeback. The Patriots became the first team in NFL history to erase multiple 14-point deficits in a postseason game.
Brady hit Brandon LaFell for the 23-yard, game-winning score with just over five minutes remaining. Cornerback Rashaan Melvin was trailing on the play, a familiar result for a Ravens' cornerback. Shrugging off previous struggles against the Ravens in the postseason, Brady was 33-for-50 for 367 yards, three touchdown passes, one touchdown run and one interception.
“Obviously, a very tough loss,” said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. “I'm very proud of our guys, not just in this game. But in this game, you probably saw — for those of you who haven't watched us much all year — the same thing that our guys have been doing all year, as far as overcoming adversity and continuing to fight and doing all the things that our guys have done all year.
“I've never been around a team that has handled distractions and those kinds of things with minimal drag like this team has. They focused on the important things and became the very best football team they could be. That's what this team did.”
Harbaugh's Ravens were the aggressors all night. Three times they went for it on fourth down and each time they got it. They scored touchdowns on their first two drives, Flacco hitting former Patriot Kamar Aiken for a 19-yard score and then Steve Smith, who got inside cornerback Darrelle Revis, for a 9-yard strike.
Even when they allowed the Patriots to tie the game with two quick scores, the Ravens intercepted Brady just before halftime and Flacco capitalized on the turnover with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Daniels, which gave the visitors a 21-14 lead.
The Ravens outgained the Patriots 428-422. Justin Forsett rushed for 129 of the team's 136 rushing yards and New England had just 14 yards on the ground and attempted only 13 running plays.
But the Ravens couldn't cover Edelman or tight end Rob Gronkowski, and Dean Pees' defense couldn't keep the Patriots out of the end zone at the most critical of times. The Patriots scored touchdowns on three of four drives after Forsett's 16-yard touchdown reception had given the Ravens a 28-14 lead.
“They made one more play than we did,” said Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. “You have to tip your hat to them. They won a tough game on their home field. We came up here to win a game and there was no hesitation on our part.”
Even when the Patriots had taken the 35-31 lead, several Ravens said that they felt good about their chances. After all, they had Flacco on the their side, and other than a late third-quarter interception, which broke his string of 197 postseason passing attempts without a pick, he had consistently moved the ball on the Patriots and got great protection all day.
On a fourth-and-3 from the Ravens' 42, Flacco hit Daniels for 17 yards to move the ball into Patriots' territory, and the Ravens felt even better.
They ultimately had a second-and-5 from the 35, when Flacco spotted a matchup he liked: Torrey Smith on the outside against cornerback Logan Ryan, who had entered the game for the injured Brandon Browner. Flacco, noting the Patriots had a similar coverage in a regular-season loss to the Green Pay Bay Packers, expected Harmon, the New England safety, to shade over and help, but he felt like he could still get the ball in there.
For one of the only times all day, he was wrong and the ball sailed into the arms of Harmon, who held on despite a hit from Smith.
“I mean, you can be critical of any play that doesn't work,” Harbaugh said. “Joe Flacco made a bunch of plays out there today, and Joe Flacco made a bunch of plays throughout the course of the season. You know, Joe is at his best in these kinds of game, and I thought he played well.”
Indeed, he did, completing 28 of 45 passes for 292 yards, four touchdowns and the two interceptions. But on this day, the Ravens needed him to be perfect to keep their season alive.