As many of his star teammates had gone down and the losses started to pile up this season, quarterback Joe Flacco remained one of the few constants for the Ravens.
But in their 16-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, Flacco became the latest player to see his season prematurely end in what has quickly become the most disappointing campaign in franchise history. The Ravens have three wins this year and 18 players have suffered season-ending injuries.
On the first play of the Ravens' game-winning drive, Flacco tore at least one ligament in his left knee, an injury that ends his season and put his status for 2016 in jeopardy.
For the first time since 2007, the Ravens will have a different starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, next week.
“I'm probably still in shock a little bit,” Flacco said after the game. “You play football and you play as long as I have and you play as hard as we do out there, then stuff like this happens. You have to just stand tall and be tough about it. That's all you can do. I think that's the way I am about everything in my life, and I'm not going to be any different this time.”
Debbie Ell, 57, traveled from Easton with her family for the game — mainly to watch retired Ravens safety Ed Reed's induction into the team's Ring of Honor.
“I'm happy about the win, but sad it cost us Flacco,” she said.
Ell's son, Tyler, who wore a black Reed jersey, said he's not sure the rest of the season can be salvaged.
“It's too much to think about,” he said.
Starting running back Justin Forsett also suffered a season-ending injury Sunday, as he broke two bones in his forearm. Forsett and Flacco join starters such as wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., wide receiver and first-round NFL draft pick Breshad Perriman, center Jeremy Zuttah and one of their top pass rushers, linebacker Terrell Suggs, on the season-ending injury list.
Injuries also kept safety Matt Elam, the team's 2013 first-round draft pick, and former starting tight end Dennis Pitta off the field this year.
“Isn't this just the way this season has been going?” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “You lose five, six of our top players, our leaders. Just ... smile at it and keep pushing. That's all you can do.”
Flacco, who hadn't missed a game in his first seven NFL seasons, faces a long rehabilitation and the Ravens have one more key issue to address in an important offseason. They were already expected to rework Flacco's six-year, $120.6 million contract because his deal would otherwise count $28.55 million toward the team's salary cap next year, which would have made it prohibitive for the Ravens to upgrade the rest of their roster.
His injury might complicate those negotiations and force the Ravens to consider drafting or signing a potential starting quarterback this offseason.
“I have no idea at this point,” said Flacco when asked about how the injury will affect his future. “We just have to see what we can do and get back as quick as possible.”
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson tore his ACL and MCL in late December 2012 and was ready for the start of the 2013 season. Ravens rookie safety Terrence Brooks tore his ACL and MCL in mid-December last year and was practicing in mid-August.
The Ravens, though, are unsure of the extent of the damage to Flacco's left knee, which was hurt when backup left tackle James Hurst rolled into him.
“He screamed, but you never really know,” Hurst said of Flacco. “He was saying it was really hurting him, but he's an unbelievably tough guy to stay in there. He could barely walk, and he finished that game like a warrior.”
John McNulty, like many fans in the stadium, didn't realize the extent of Flacco's injuries until after the game. When he heard the news, the 24-year-old thought it was a joke.
“It basically sums up the season: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” the Sykesville resident said.
Flacco is expected to have a magnetic resonance imaging exam today and then surgery when the swelling goes down. What is known is that his streak of 122 straight starts — he had not missed a game since the Ravens made him the 18th overall pick in the 2008 draft — will come to an end. It was the fifth-longest streak for a quarterback in NFL history.
“That has been a great blessing to have Joe every single game for eight and a half years here,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He's an iron man. I told the team he's an absolute iron man, warrior-type of a player out there, and now it's his turn. We have to step up and rally up for him, just like he has done so many times for so many guys.
“We'll be fine as a football team. We'll bounce back, that's what you do. Matt Schaub can play quarterback, and he's going to come in, [and] he's going to play very well.”
As he spoke to reporters, Flacco managed several smiles. Then, he limped out of the locker room, his immediate future and the future of the team he leads more uncertain than ever.
“It's tough,” Flacco said. “I don't think it's totally set in yet, but it's the nature of the game, man. Stuff like this
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.