As the San Diego Chargers were getting the ball back late in the fourth quarter and needing a touchdown to complete their comeback over the Ravens, the sense of dread was palpable at M&T Bank Stadium.
It was as if the announced 71,060 in the stands knew what was coming next and the final two-plus minutes — a sequence that could change the course of the Ravens' season — was just one painful formality. The Ravens' beleaguered defense had certainly earned such skepticism.
Trailing all afternoon, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers connected with Eddie Royal on a 1-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass with 38 seconds to play, leaving the Ravens' offense, which did everything right all day except consistently score in the red zone, too little time to answer.
The Ravens' 34-33 loss was easily one of the most difficult regular-season defeats in the John Harbaugh era. On a day where two of their division rivals lost and they had a chance to secure a key victory against an AFC playoff contender, the Ravens saw a 10-point lead evaporate on their home field in a little over five minutes.
Overall, the Ravens led the game for more than 55 minutes, but trailed in the only 38 seconds that mattered.
"When your offense is able to put up points like they did, we expect to close out games, finish, and make the plays at the end to help our team win," Ravens defensive end Chris Canty said. "We were not able to hold up our end of the bargain today. It stings a little bit. This was a pivotal game, a great opportunity for us, and we let it get away."
Royal's touchdown gave San Diego its first lead of the afternoon and capped a drive where Rivers and the Chargers needed just eight plays and 1:44 to go 80 yards and get into the end zone.
The drive might as well have served as a microcosm of the game for the defense as the Ravens committed two penalties, including a pass interference call on Anthony Levine in the end zone, and watched Rivers complete 6-of-8 passes and march the Chargers down the field, often with little resistance.
"In the NFL, nothing is game, set and match as long as there's time on the clock, but we're up 10 at home in the fourth quarter and our offense gave us 33 points. Usually, that's enough," said Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs. "Unfortunately it wasn't — that's why this is so disappointing. There's no other word I can say. I was really disappointed. We've got to look to correct our mistakes, get on with it, and we have to play one hell of a game in Miami."
Trailing by one, the Ravens got the ball back at their own 14 with 32 seconds to play, but any hope of giving Justin Tucker an attempt at a game-winning field goal attempt ended when wide receiver Kamar Aiken was ruled to be in bounds on his 24-yard catch near the sideline. The final seconds ticked off the clock and the Ravens had no timeouts to stop it.
The loss, their second at home this season, leaves the Ravens with a 7-5 mark and on the outside of a muddled AFC playoff picture with a road game against the Dolphins (6-5) looming next Sunday. The Ravens remained tied for second in the AFC North with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, who both lost Sunday, but the victorious Cincinnati Bengals (8-3-1) opened up a game and a half lead over the rest of the division.
The Ravens currently are the AFC's eighth seed ,with the top six making the playoffs, but a loss to the Chargers (8-4) doesn't bode well for potential postseason tie-break scenarios.
"We have good enough players to win, and we have to go do it," Harbaugh said.
It appears that going forward, the Ravens will have to win in spite of their defense. Against the Chargers, the defense allowed 440 total yards, 376 of them coming through the air as Rivers went 34-for-45 for 383 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
The Chargers, who punted only once, went 9-of-11 on third downs, converting on their first eight of the game. And when San Diego wasn't chewing up yardage with Rivers getting the ball out quickly to open targets, the Ravens were handing it to them with a plethora of penalties. The Ravens committed 14 penalties for 98 yards and the defense, was flagged for 11 infractions, though three were declined. Five of the penalties were for offsides, including three on Elvis Dumervil.
In the past two games, the Ravens allowed 61 total points to the New Orleans Saints and Chargers, 965 total yards of offense, 775 passing yards and six passing scores.
"We've got to compete," Levine said. "We were in a position to win this game. It was on us, and we didn't get the job done."
Harbaugh wasn't pleased about the key pass interference call on Levine, who was dueling with Royal in the end zone. The 23-yard penalty gave the Chargers the ball on the 1-yard line and Rivers hit Royal for the go-ahead touchdown on the next play.
"My understanding is that both players, the offensive and defensive player, [are] supposed to have an opportunity to go make a play on the ball," he said.
The reality, however, was that the Ravens had several questionable pass-interference calls that set up scores go in their direction and the game should have never come down to that anyway. The Ravens scored on seven of their eight full possessions, but four times they had to settle for Tucker field goals after driving into the red zone.
Otherwise, they racked up 350 total yards and didn't commit a turnover. Before leaving the game with what is believed to be a knee injury, Torrey Smith caught two touchdown passes, a 16-yard, one-handed grab that gave the Ravens a 7-0 lead and a 10-yard grab that pushed their advantage to 23-13 at the 5:01 mark of the quarter.
Justin Forsett had more than100 yards rushing for the third straight game and eclipsed 1,000 yards for the season. Flacco completed 19-of-31 passes for 225 yards and when he scored on a quarterback sneak with 6:13 to play, the Ravens had a 30-20 lead.
But Rivers needed just 2:33 to make it a one-possession game with a 23-yard strike to Keenan Allen. And then after the Ravens were forced to settle for Tucker's 31-yard field and a 33-27 lead, you almost knew what was coming next.
"This is a stinger," said Steve Smith who had just one catch for two yards. "If you look around the locker room, a lot of people are gone and disappointed. You've got to move on and get your mind ready to evaluate yourself."