CINCINNATI — Joe Flacco walked slowly off the field, his hands resting on his hips and his head down. He didn't even give a cursory glance at the Cincinnati Bengals celebrating in the end zone.
When he finally got to the sideline following Dre Kirkpatrick's 21-yard interception return for a touchdown, Flacco pulled off his helmet and tossed it to the ground, creating a defining image for a Ravens season that was just minutes away from ending.
Whether that was the moment when it had finally set in for Flacco and the rest of his teammates is unclear, but they'll have plenty of time to digest the reality now.
The Ravens are not going to the playoffs, their title defense officially coming to an end Sunday. A 34-17 loss to the AFC North champion Bengals in front of an announced 62,406 at Paul Brown Stadium sealed the Ravens' fate and ended their NFL-best five-year postseason run.
"It's tough. It's disappointing," Flacco said. "But we're an 8-8 football team — we don't deserve to be there. It just is what it is. Everybody in that locker room is used to winning and getting in the playoffs and giving ourselves a shot to win it all. It's disappointing not to have done that for ourselves, but we didn't play well and at 8-8, we don't deserve to be in there."
Flacco's comments were reiterated throughout a quiet locker room. Nobody made excuses or shifted blame. To a man, the Ravens admitted that they simply weren't good enough to earn the right to keep playing, not just on Sunday, when they allowed Cincinnati to score the game's final 17 points, but all season.
"We have no choice but to accept it," Ravens strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. "We have a talented group of guys and coaching staff, so it's very disappointing. We worked hard all season and did a lot of good things this year, but it wasn't good enough to make it to the playoffs."
It had all set up perfectly for the Ravens, too. They needed a victory and a loss by either the Miami Dolphins against the New York Jets or the San Diego Chargers versus the playoff-bound Kansas City Chiefs to qualify for the postseason. Just as the Ravens were getting back into their game, the Jets were taking control against the Dolphins en route to a 20-7 victory.
But the Ravens couldn't take advantage and the beneficiary was the Chargers who beat the Chiefs, 27-24, in overtime to capture the second and final wild-card spot. The Ravens' hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, would have gone to the playoffs if the Chargers lost.
"It's obviously a very difficult, disappointing loss," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who was seeking to join Bill Cowher as the only NFL coach to reach the playoffs in the first six seasons to start an NFL head-coaching career. "That's it, that ends it. That stings."
Their final loss might as well serve as a microcosm of their season. The Ravens persevered through a slew of offensive miscues and defensive breakdowns to come back from an 11-point halftime deficit and tie the game late in the third quarter.
But their defense couldn't get off the field and maintain the momentum, allowing a 90-yard scoring drive that ended on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's 1-yard touchdown run that gave Cincinnati a 24-17 lead with 13:29 to play.
Of the Ravens' final five possessions, three of them ended on Flacco interceptions, one of them on a Sam Koch punt and another when they were stopped on downs in the game's final seconds. The Bengals, who watched Dalton throw four interceptions, kept giving the visitors opportunities to stay in the game but the Ravens kept handing them right back.
"That's usually the case when you're not sharp enough," said Flacco, whose three interceptions give him 22 for the season, three more than any quarterback in Ravens' history. "Usually, the same problems keep presenting themselves, even at the end of the game. They gave us an easy touchdown there and we can't get it. It's just you're that much off and when you're that much off over the course of 16 games, you're not going to be special enough to win football games. That's just kind of where we are."
All of the Ravens' flaws throughout the year reared on the regular season's final day. When he wasn't throwing interceptions, Flacco was running for his life on his sore left knee. The offensive line struggled and the running game was again nonexistent with starter Ray Rice watching much of the game from the sideline because of what Harbaugh cited as a decision made by the offensive coaches with Rice's quad injury in mind.
Even when they got into Bengals' territory — and they were set up well early thanks to two Dalton interceptions — the Ravens couldn't finish drives. The Ravens were just 1-of-4 from the red zone and finished the season with just two touchdowns in their final 12 quarters.
"I thought that was the issue the week before too, and the week before that," said Harbaugh of the team's red-zone woes. "That's been an issue down the stretch for us — scoring touchdowns in the red zone — and it got us again in this game."
Their lone touchdown Sunday was an 8-yard catch by Marlon Brown, which coupled by Rice's two-point conversion run, tied the game at 17 with 5:13 left in the third quarter. At that point, several of the players noticed on the scoreboard that the Jets had the lead over the Dolphins. The Ravens, who had scored 11 unanswered points in a little over four minutes, certainly had all the momentum.
"When we tied it up at 17, I thought, 'here we go,'" said fullback Vonta Leach. "We hadn't played good all day but we fought to get back in the game. Then, the game just kind of got away from us."
It started with the Bengals' 12-play, 90-yard drive that ate up 6:44 and ended with Dalton all but walking into the end zone. It continued with Flacco throwing an interception on the very next play from scrimmage as Chris Crocker caught a ball that was tipped at the line of scrimmage, setting up a field goal by Mike Nugent.
Two possessions later came another Flacco pick, followed by the backbreaker, Kirkpatrick's 21-yard interception return for a touchdown that made it 34-17 with just over four minutes to play. As he walked off the field following his final interception of 2013, Flacco looked deflated and resigned to the team's fate.
In March, a little more than a month after leading the Ravens to their second Super Bowl title and being named the game's most valuable player, Flacco received a $120.6 million contract extension, making him the highest paid player in team history.
This certainly wasn't the way he — nor any of the other Ravens — envisioned what began as a magical 2013 ending.
"You have to watch the games, you can't just at the numbers and say, 'That's the problem,'" said wide receiver Torrey Smith, defending his quarterback. "If you're not watching the game, you're not judging anyone fairly. That's fantasy football, looking at the stats. Joe's a warrior for us. He's going to take a lot of heat. He fought through so many things this year. He battled. He didn't quit. He didn't point the finger at anyone. He shouldn't have been in this position heading into the offseason."