FOXBOROUGH, MASS. — Terrell Suggs stood on the sideline, and the man who is never at a loss for words could only mouth the words “Oh, my God.”
Ray Rice and Torrey Smith said nothing, choosing instead to stare straight ahead and wonder in silence how a long football season full of legitimate Super Bowl aspirations could possibly end like this.
Fourteen yards from the end zone and a Super Bowl berth, and seemingly in position for no worse than a game-tying field goal that would force overtime, the Ravens watched two potential touchdown passes get broken up, and then Billy Cundiff pushed a 32-yard field goal wide left with 15 seconds remaining.
The season-ending 23-20 loss to the New England Patriots at raucous Gillette Stadium appeared to sting worse than any of the Ravens' previous playoff failures. The Ravens, who dressed in near silence after the game, had the lead early in the fourth quarter and had three late opportunities to regain it.
However, they squandered each one and instead put the AFC championship on the right foot of Cundiff, then watched in disbelief when he couldn't prolong the game.
“It [stinks],” Suggs said. “It was a special year from start to finish. Even with 22 seconds left, we thought we had it. But hey, congrats to them, can't take anything from them. Rest assured, we are going back to work. We're going to take the necessary time off, but when we train, we know what our destiny is.”
For the seventh time in franchise history and the first since 2008, the Patriots' destiny is the championship game — this time, Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, where they'll meet the New York Giants, who defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 20-17 in overtime, in the NFC championship game Sunday night.
The Ravens, meanwhile, start an offseason filled with lament after coming so close to getting back to the Super Bowl. Nobody felt any worse than Cundiff, who got a good snap and hold and just missed the kick.
“It's a kick I've kicked a thousand times in my career,” Cundiff said. “I just went out there and didn't convert. That's the way things go. There's really no excuse for it.”
To their credit, the Ravens rallied around Cundiff and acknowledged that it should have never come down to a game-tying field-goal attempt. Two plays earlier, Joe Flacco, who had one of the better performances of his career given the circumstances, made a perfect throw to wide receiver Lee Evans. He appeared to catch the ball in the right corner of the end zone, but as he was coming down with it, Patriots rookie cornerback Sterling Moore slapped it away.
Thinking it was a touchdown, Flacco threw his hands up and started running toward Evans, and the Ravens' sideline erupted.
“There's really not a whole lot to say about it. It was an opportunity for us to go to the Super Bowl, and I let it go,” said Evans, who had his best game as a Raven, catching three balls for 39 yards after entering the game with just five catches all season. “Honestly, the most disappointing part of all this is that I feel personally that I let everybody down. This is the greatest team that I've been on, and I feel like I let everybody down. Yeah, it's on my shoulders. It's as tough as it gets.”
That sentiment was echoed by safety Bernard Pollard who signed with the Ravens before the season, feeling that they represented his best shot at getting to the Super Bowl.
“Eighteen seconds, man. I don't care who you are. You can't drive the field 18 seconds against us. But shoulda, coulda, woulda and we didn't,” Pollard said. “It was the biggest game of my career, so it's the biggest loss of my career. It hurts, it [stinks] . We got to bounce back someway, somehow. To do what we did, that's hard. For us, we got to find a way to get back there.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who has guided the Ravens to the playoffs in all four of his seasons but is now 0-2 in AFC championship games, pleaded for the referee to review the play by Evans to determine whether he had held it long enough for the touchdown, but the coach didn't get his wish.
“Obviously a disappointing, stunning loss at the end there,” he said. “I thought our guys played their hearts out. We made plays and came up a play or two short at the end, but it doesn't lessen what they accomplished this year, and it doesn't lessen what they accomplished in this game. … I like our football team and I like where we are going.”
The Ravens played exactly the game that they wanted against the Patriots, giving up plenty of ground on defense but holding in the red zone, and gaining chunks of yards on offense behind a sharp Flacco, who was 22-for-36 for 306 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
A 16-10 deficit early in the third quarter became a 20-16 Ravens lead by the start of the fourth. That's because Flacco hit Smith (Maryland) for a 29-yard touchdown pass with 3:48 left in the third quarter, and then the Ravens converted Danny Woodhead's fumble on the ensuing kickoff into a 39-yard field goal.
But Brady, who was 22-for-36 for 239 yards and two interceptions but consistently moved his team down the field behind short passes and the running of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, answered with an 11-play, 63-yard drive. It ended with Brady plunging in on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
“I thought it looked soft in there, so I tried to take advantage of us getting an easy touchdown,” Brady said. “I don't do that very often. I'm glad we had a chance to score there. That was important.”
Trailing 23-20 with 11:29 to go, the Ravens quickly marched into Patriots territory before Flacco was intercepted by Brandon Spikes. But on the very next play, Brady was picked off in the end zone when Pollard deflected the ball and rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith made a diving catch and returned the ball all the way to Ravens' 38.
The Ravens drove into Patriots territory again, but on fourth -and-6 at the 33, Harbaugh opted to eschew a 50-yard field goal and go for the first down. Flacco was pressured by Vince Wilfork and threw a floater over the head of Dennis Pitta.
“We just felt like from a percentage standpoint, we probably had a better chance of getting the first down,” Harbaugh said.
At that point — trailing by three with 2:46 to play and two timeouts — the Ravens' Super Bowl dreams were on life support. But the defense forced a three-and-out for just the second time all game, and the Ravens had the ball back at their own 22 with 1:44 to play.
The stage was set for Flacco, who has been hearing criticism for weeks that he wasn't good enough to get the Ravens to the Super Bowl. He hit Anquan Boldin for 13 and 9 yards, and then on third-and-1 he completed a 29-yard pass to the veteran wide receiver to get the Ravens to the Patriots' 23.
“It wasn't me today, it was Joe Flacco,” running back Ray Rice said. “I would appreciate if some of the people that criticize him lay off him now. That's my quarterback.”
Another completion to Boldin got the ball down to the 14, but it would agonizingly get no closer. Moore separated the ball from Evans, and then knocked away a potential touchdown pass to Pitta. That's when Cundiff stepped up with a chance to prolong the season and pushed it wide left.
“When you lose, you have to suck it up like a man and as a man you got to keep moving,” inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. “We've got to keep building and remember this taste no matter how many times you go through it.”
Lewis answered one of the Ravens' primary offseason questions by saying he has “absolutely not” played his last game as a Raven. But a host of questions remain. Will safety Ed Reed or center Matt Birk retire? Will much-maligned offensive coordinator Cam Cameron be back? How will the Ravens handle their huge list of potential free agents, which includes Rice, guard Ben Grubbs and linebacker Jarret Johnson?
Those questions will have to be answered in the coming days, but the Ravens will have to get over this setback first, and that won't be easy.
“It's definitely tough to be as close as we were going to Indianapolis and not having it go our way,” Flacco said. “We played a hell of a game. They played a hell of game. They played better.”