For a few weeks at least, it seemed the Ravens might follow the same script that carried them all the way to a Super Bowl victory two years ago.
Again they entered the playoffs as wounded underdogs. Again they vanquished a favored rival — this time, the Pittsburgh Steelers — on the road. Again, they played a brilliant game against the ever-difficult New England Patriots in hostile Foxborough, Mass.
This time, however, the Patriots wouldn't cooperate.
In a gripping battle full of shifting fortunes, indelible plays and strategic intrigue, the Patriots ended the Ravens' season, beating them 35-31 in the AFC divisional playoffs. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco finally faltered in the postseason with two late interceptions after an otherwise superb performance. His Patriots counterpart, Tom Brady, declawed a fearsome Ravens defense.
Fans packing Max's Tap House in Fells Point gasped as Flacco's last-ditch Hail Mary was batted in the air, then groaned as it dropped to the ground.
Finishing their drinks and closing out their tabs, many fans looked on the Ravens' year with pride.
"It was a good season," said Tony Epps, 54, of Baltimore, wearing a Haloti Ngata jersey underneath a black Ravens jacket. "We made the playoffs, the divisional round, despite the adversity in the beginning of the season with Ray Rice."
The loss ended a tumultuous year. Well before the season started, Ray Rice's assault charge sparked nationwide criticism over the case's handling by team and NFL officials. Later, defensive stalwart Haloti Ngata was suspended for using a banned drug. And the team barely scraped into the playoffs on the last Sunday of the regular season.
Still, for the sixth time in seven years under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens made the postseason and won at least one playoff game. Longtime stars Flacco and Terrell Suggs produced banner seasons. Some new arrivals added their own dashes of excitement.
In the end, they went further than most expected. They turned the conversation in Baltimore back to football after a dark seven months dominated by Rice's fall from grace.
Uncertainty looms in the offseason, as it always does. Key players, including wide receiver Torrey Smith will be free agents and other veteran stars will likely be asked to rework hefty contracts. But with Harbaugh, Flacco and most of a top-notch defense locked in place, fans have reason to be optimistic, even after seeing their hopes dashed that this year's run would continue.
Those fans who ignored the cold, flocking to bars and restaurants to watch the game, seemed disappointed that the run was over but excited the Ravens made it as far into the postseason as they did.
"This was way better than I expected," said Zach Bradley, 27, of Fells Point. Amid all the noise in the bar, he leaned in to tell a friend he preferred Saturday's loss to the 2012 AFC Championship heartbreaker, which ended with a missed 32-yard field goal by then-Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff: "Feels better than that."
Vanessa Shipman and Hannah Walker, roommates in Fells Point, said they couldn't believe the Ravens lost after leading for much of the game.
"I'm really stunned," said Shipman, 24. "We were up the whole game."
The Patriots, with Bill Belichick on the sideline and Brady at quarterback, have stood as the AFC's chief gatekeepers for more than a decade. With the Ravens also generally in contention, the franchises have built a rivalry, despite playing in different divisions.
Their competition reached its apex in the AFC Championship Games of 2012 and 2013, both played in Foxborough. The first was among the most painful losses in Ravens history, remembered for a final drive that faltered on Lee Evans' dropped touchdown pass and Cundiff's shanked field goal. But the Ravens took their revenge the next season, beating the favored Patriots, 28-13, to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
Animosity bubbled beneath the surface of those games, with Ravens defensive mouthpiece Terrell Suggs refusing to call Brady by name, saying he was favored by referees and even insulting the frequent cover boy's hair cut.
Few players on either team would say any of that mattered. But it was fun for everyone else.
The sniping was nowhere to be found in the build-up to this year's AFC divisional showdown. Instead, the teams killed each other with kindness.
Belichick talked of how well-rounded the Ravens were. Harbaugh lavished praise on the New England coaching staff. Brady deemed Suggs' form after 12 seasons "phenomenal." Suggs was stunned to near silence by his foe's graciousness.
It sounded like they were signing each other's high school yearbooks rather than firing up for a playoff game.
But push all the noise aside and Ravens-Patriots was always about classic football questions. How would the cool-headed, decisive Brady deal with Suggs and the rest of the Ravens' uber-aggressive defenders? How would Flacco's bomb-throwing postseason style fare against Belichick's once-in-a-generation defensive mind?
The Ravens had won enough of those battles over the years that their fans came out with high hopes, even though the Patriots were the AFC's top seed and clear favorites on their home field.
Mike Arias, 32, drove into the city from Gaithersburg to watch the game in a crowd of purple at Max's. He rolled up his sleeve to show off the Ravens tattoo on his right bicep, even as he acknowledged the team's shortcomings Saturday night.
"Flacco made one bad pass, and in football, that's all it takes," he said. "It's a game of inches, and the Ravens came up short."