MINNEAPOLIS — As Steve Hauschka's potential game-winning kick sailed wide left, nearly all the Ravens on the sideline dropped their heads in unison, feeling another last-minute punch in the gut in a season that continues to veer off course.
The Ravens' frenetic 33-31 loss to the undefeated Minnesota Vikings marked their third straight defeat - and their third straight decided in the final 30 seconds of a game.Their offense failed on the last drive in New England. Their defense fell apart in its last series against the Cincinnati Bengals. Then, Sunday, before a deafening 63,689 at the Metrodome, their special teams flopped.
Hauschka missed his first chance to win a game since replacing Matt Stover - who made 14 game-winning kicks in 19 NFL seasons - hooking the 44-yarder a couple of yards left of the upright to ruin one of the great comebacks in team history.
"It's definitely one I want back," Hauschka said. "I felt like I had a decent swing on it. Then, I looked up and there it was going left. It's a very humbling experience. You have to move on from it and make the next one.
"It's tough for me," he added. "I feel like I let them down. But there's a lot of plays in the game, and that's something I have to live with."
While Hauschka accepted the blame, this devastating defeat can easily be placed on a crumbling defense.
The run defense continues to miss tackles. Adrian Peterson overpowered and outran the front seven for 143 rushing yards, the first time the Ravens have allowed 100-yard rushers in consecutive weeks since 2005.
The secondary continues to struggle. Fabian Washington was benched ("I agree with them," he later said). Frank Walker was called for two critical pass-interference penalties in the fourth quarter.
"This game I take the punishment and put it on my back," Walker said. "I'm definitely sick and tired of" close games.
Failing to win close games has become a nagging problem for the Ravens. Under coach John Harbaugh, they are 2-6 (including the playoffs) in games decided by six points or fewer.
The Ravens now slide into their bye with a 3-3 record and trail the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals by one game in the AFC North.
"I couldn't be more proud of our team," Harbaugh said. "There are many things that we can and have to get better at. But the essential element is in place - our guys have the heart of a lion. That's what they are. That doesn't make it OK not to finish the game. That doesn't make it OK to play the way we played in some stretches. But it's the key element. We can stand on that foundation."
Down 27-10 with 10 minutes left in the game, the Ravens stormed back with Ray Rice's big plays and Joe Flacco's courage.
Facing pressure in the pocket all game, Flacco hit a leaping Mark Clayton for a 32-yard touchdown, which came against backup cornerback Karl Paymah (starter Antoine Winfield was injured in the second quarter).
After a short pass to Rice turned into a 63-yard gain, Flacco hit Derrick Mason with a quick pass that turned into a 12-yard touchdown. And Rice's 33-yard dash - which featured him high-stepping into the end zone - gave the Ravens their first lead at 31-30 with 3:37 left in the game.
"When we are playing our best football, we're tough to contend with," said Rice, who finished with 194 yards of total offense (77 yards rushing and 117 yards receiving) and two touchdowns.
The Ravens' adulation was short-lived because of Vikings quarterback Brett Favre (278 passing yards and three touchdowns) and wide receiver Sidney Rice (six catches for 176 yards).
Two plays after Rice's go-ahead touchdown, Favre completed a 58-yard pass to Rice, setting up a 31-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell that gave the lead back to Minnesota at 33-31.
While most would direct their anger at Walker (he was called for pass interference on that play), Harbaugh explained that there was supposed to be a safety providing help deep. But that safety bit on a run fake, leaving Walker to defend Rice one-on-one.
"Our corner was on an island that you wouldn't want him to be on," Harbaugh said. "It's a difficult coverage. It was a tough play for our corner."
Getting the ball back with 1:56 remaining, Flacco drove the Ravens 38 yards on four completions. Rice's 3-yard draw put the Ravens at the Minnesota 26-yard line.
Instead of running another play - it was only third down - the Ravens let the clock wind down to two seconds before spiking the ball to stop the clock.
Harbaugh said there was "maybe" a thought of taking one more play before attempting the field goal.
"But with no timeouts, you're just taking a chance there," he said. "We were in field-goal range, and it was certainly very makable. We got done with that drive what we needed to get done to win the game."
Flacco, who threw for 385 yards (second-highest in Ravens history) and two touchdowns, didn't watch the kick. He didn't need to see it. He just looked at his teammates' reaction and listened to the roar from the crowd.
"We don't feel good about losing the games, but at the same time, we realize what kind of team we are," Flacco said. "That's what we're going to use the rest of the year. We can overcome anything."