Ravens running back Justin Forsett talks about being a free agent and the business side of football. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The suddenness of it all was probably the hardest thing to accept for the Ravens, who spent Sunday emptying the contents of their lockers into large trash bags, saying their goodbyes to teammates and grudgingly embracing a long offseason and, in some cases, an uncertain future.
Not at any point during Saturday's AFC divisional round matchup against the New England Patriots did the Ravens fathom that it would come to this. For much of the game, they had outplayed the top-seeded Patriots so badly that the Gillette Stadium crowd was either eerily silent or loudly booing.
The Ravens built a two-touchdown lead, lost it, and then regained it by the early stages of the third quarter. Then, in seemingly no time at all, it was gone. But for many Ravens, the reality that it was all over didn't fully set in until long after Joe Flacco's Hail Mary fling was batted to the ground, securing the Patriots' hard-earned 35-31 victory.
"That's the tough part about it. You're playing, you're playing, and it never occurs to you that the outcome might not be the way you wanted it to be," Ravens defensive end Chris Canty said Sunday. "Just the faith that we have in one another, even going down on that last drive, we just felt like Joe was going to make the plays that needed to be made, and we were going to come up with a game-winning drive and walk off the field and look forward to going to the AFC championship.
"Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. We came up short, and that was the end of the narrative for the 2014 Baltimore Ravens."
Canty, a veteran leader who is contemplating retirement after his 10th NFL season, grew emotional when he talked about the previous five months. It was easily one of the most tumultuous years in franchise history, starting in the offseason with a rife of player arrests and continuing with Ray Rice's domestic violence ban and subsequent release.
The injury wave hit the Ravens hard in training camp and then never relented during the season, and Haloti Ngata's four-game suspension added to the team's woes.
But the Ravens clinched their playoff berth on the season's final day — thanks to a little help from the Kansas City Chiefs — and then dominated their archrival Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in the wild-card round.
When the Ravens jumped out to 14-0 and 28-14 leads on the Patriots with a crisp and confident offense leading the way, it was easy to have flashbacks to their Super Bowl run two years ago. But then, quickly, it was all over.
"Just the way it ended, it could have went either way," left guard Kelechi Osemele said. "It's really not a feeling of heartbreak other than the initial onset of the shock.
"After you get over that, and you think about the season and the way that the guys played and things like that, you just feel hopeful for the future. If we can keep these same guys, we can always be able to compete at that level and have the type of team that's going to continue to go to championships year in and year out."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh had one final meeting with the team early Sunday afternoon.
According to the players, Harbaugh stressed the importance of moving forward and building off the positive things that the Ravens accomplished this season. He again told his players how proud that he was of them for how they stayed focused on what mattered and didn't get caught up in all the negatives swirling around the team.
"Obviously, it wasn't what we wanted, but he's real confident about next year," said wide receiver Torrey Smith.
After the meeting, some players retreated to the locker room to pack their bags and talk to the media. Others stayed in other parts of the team facility, avoiding the always unwelcome questions about their futures and the regret about not fulfilling the team's goals.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith, whose season-ending foot injury may have represented the Ravens' biggest loss of all, added some levity to the situation by walking into the locker room while wearing a Halloween mask of an old man. He was recognizable only because of the boot on his foot and the Chicago Bulls winter hat, which he always wears, on his head.
Otherwise, the mood in the locker room was a mixture of disappointment for falling short and blowing a big lead, yet pride for how the team stayed together and won 11 total games while constantly plugging holes in their roster.
"It's really unfortunate, because I know for us, on the offensive side of the ball, we were really in a groove and doing some great things," Ravens running back Justin Forsett said. "Hopefully, that momentum that we built can move on to next season, but it's a special group all around, in all three phases here, and it's a great organization."
Forsett, who was one of the keys to the team's rejuvenated running game, has played in five organizations in seven seasons, so he is fully aware of the massive turnover that most NFL teams face every offseason.
They could have as many as 15 unrestricted free agents, the group headed by Forsett, Torrey Smith, tight end Owen Daniels and outside linebacker-defensive end Pernell McPhee. Safety Will Hill and kicker Justin Tucker both will be restricted free agents. Longtime key defensive cogs Haloti Ngata and Lardarius Webb, along with kick returner Jacoby Jones, may need to readjust their contracts to stay.
But the Ravens certainly have far fewer questions going into this offseason than they've had in the recent past. Their retooled offensive line performed brilliantly for much of the season, and they'll bring back seven different linemen who started games this season. The defensive line is extremely deep and will remain so even if Canty retires, which some around the team expect.
Rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley looks to be a fixture in the middle of the Ravens' defense for years to come, while fellow first-year players Timmy Jernigan, Crockett Gillmore, Lorenzo Taliaferro, John Urschel and Michael Campanaro all contributed at different points of the season.
The needs are obvious. The Ravens will have to fortify their offense and add a couple of more skill-position players for Flacco, who made great strides under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. But the biggest challenge of all for general manager Ozzie Newsome will be to fix a secondary that was exposed all season, undone by injuries and ineffectiveness.
"I can only speak for myself," said safety Matt Elam, the team's 2013 first-round pick who struggled mightily this season. "I don't know what I'm going to do this offseason yet. I really haven't decided."