For much of Sunday afternoon, the Ravens were getting all the help for which they could have asked, yet they seemed powerless to help themselves.
The San Diego Chargers were losing, as they needed, but so were the Ravens against a Cleveland Browns team that was playing out the string, beset by turmoil, and starting a rookie quarterback who had spent the season on the practice squad.
Each failed drive brought louder boos from the capacity crowd at M&T Bank Stadium and more frustration from the Ravens' sideline.
"We have a real opportunity. We're wasting it right now," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said after the game about his thoughts at the time.
It was Smith and quarterback Joe Flacco, with a huge helping hand from the Kansas City Chiefs, who prolonged the Ravens' season that was quickly heading to an abrupt end.
Flacco threw two touchdown passes in less than a four-minute span of the fourth quarter as the Ravens rallied to beat the Browns, 20-10, in front of an announced 71,070.
Just seconds after the Ravens' game ended, the final play of the Chargers' 19-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs was shown on the stadium's video boards. When Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw an interception on the game's final play, the crowd at M&T Bank Stadium, which had spent the majority of the afternoon booing the home team and nervously watching the scoreboard, erupted in cheers.
The Ravens, who finished the regular season with a 10-6 record, head to the playoffs for the sixth time in John Harbaugh's seven seasons as coach. They'll play in the wild-card round Saturday at Heinz Field against the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers, with the game scheduled for 8:15 p.m.
"You walk in that locker room, and you see the faces and you hug those big guys, and you say congratulations on making the playoffs, especially in this division, especially in this conference, the way that things have gone this year," Harbaugh said. "You're just happy for them, for this team, for this group of guys — not the guys seven years ago, for these guys.
"It's year-to-year, it's week-to-week, it's minute-to-minute. The difference between how we felt 15 minutes before the end of the game and the end of the game, right? That's the beauty of it. That's what makes it great."
Said Ravens veteran offensive lineman Marshal Yanda: "I would have been sick if [the Chargers] would have lost and we would have lost. Just kind of like last year."
Their final regular-season game fit in perfectly with the rest of the Ravens' 2014 campaign, a year defined by injuries, off-the-field issues, and occasionally dominant play mixed with periods of great struggle.
Against the Browns (7-9), they lost starting defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and reserve linebacker Arthur Brown to injuries. Their offense managed a lone field goal over the game's first 49 minutes and couldn't punch the ball in from the 1-yard line on three consecutive plays against the NFL's 32nd-ranked run defense.
The Ravens' defense seemingly had rookie quarterback Connor Shaw under wraps, but he directed an 80-yard scoring drive that gave the Browns a 10-3 lead late in the third quarter.
After all that, the Ravens ran off 17 consecutive points to close the game. Justin Tucker's 28-yard field goal made it 10-6 with 10:37 to play. Smith's 16-yard touchdown catch gave the Ravens a 13-10 lead, and came just minutes after the Chiefs had made a goal-line stand to keep the Chargers at bay.
And Flacco's 2-yard strike to Kamar Aiken with 3:44 remaining all but salted the game away at about the same time San Diego again turned the ball over on downs.
"Just a crazy finish to a crazy season," tight end Owen Daniels said. "But now, we've got more and that's great. I'm not really good with emotions when it comes to football, but you obviously go through a lot in a situation like this.
"Emotions do run through you, but ultimately, you can only do what's in front of you and take care of your business. We started slowly, but we did that today."
When the fourth quarter began, Flacco was just 14-for-27 for 151 yards. Running back Justin Forsett had only 44 rushing yards on carries. When it ended with Flacco taking a knee in victory formation, the quarterback had completed 22 of 36 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns and Forsett had run for 119 yards on 17 carries.
"Today, it was a struggle, struggle, struggle," said Flacco, who set career season highs in passing yards (3,986) and touchdown passes (27). "That's our job, to stay one way and have faith and have belief in everybody that we're going to go out there and get the job done, and that's what we were able to do. We played the full 60 minutes, and that's what won us the game."
When the Ravens went into the locker at halftime with the game tied at three, Flacco gave the offense a brief but "powerful" lecture. He felt that the Ravens weren't playing with enough desperation and his message was simple: "Let's go out and win this game," he said.
Never mind that the Ravens were held scoreless in the third quarter, several players pointed to Flacco's talk as the impetus behind the fourth-quarter offensive turnaround. Others cited two plays made by Smith as turning the course of the game.
Trailing, 10-6, the Ravens had the ball at their own 31 with just more than eight minutes to play.
On the first play of the drive, Flacco dropped back and noticed that Smith was being played one-on-one by Joe Haden, one of the game's top cornerbacks. Flacco lofted the ball out there and Smith went up high over Haden to make a 53-yard reception.
Then, on the next play, Smith got inside Buster Skrine to make the 16-yard touchdown catch in the middle of the end zone.
"I wanted to make it to the playoffs, regardless," said Smith, who is a free agent after the season and acknowledged during the week that he had given some thought to Sunday being possibly his last game as a member of the Ravens. "That has absolutely nothing to do with my future. I'm focused on now.
"We're trying to get back to where we were a couple of years ago, so everything will take care of itself. I'm not concerned about myself at all. I'd be selfish as [heck] to be worried about myself."
Smith has been one of the most vocal Ravens in talking about how painful last season was, missing the playoffs and being forced to watch other teams compete for a Super Bowl title that the Ravens had won a year earlier.
By late Sunday afternoon, that feeling of anger and disappointment was replaced by excitement and relief. The Ravens' season, which for much of Sunday appeared headed for an ugly end, is now very much alive and well.
"It feels awesome," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We haven't taken it all in yet. We really stuck together in there today. You know, Cleveland, they always fight us. They always play us tough. They fought us to the very last play, but we're in, baby."