Gritty and resilient to the very end, the Ravens' incredible turnaround season finally wheezed its last cold breath in Pittsburgh last night, one game shy of a Super Bowl ending.
A 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game snuffed the dream of a return to Tampa and Super Bowl glory.
Even in defeat, the Ravens gave plenty of reasons why they'll be back on this stage in the near future.
One year after a ragged 5-11 season cost Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick his job, the Ravens found strong new leadership in coach John Harbaugh, a quarterback to build the future around in Joe Flacco and the re-emergence of their proud defense.
"This is our beginning," Harbaugh said later. "This is not an end by any stretch. We're excited to go forward and take the next step."
In a throwback game that matched the NFL's two best defenses, the Ravens were able to keep it close enough to have the ball with a chance to take the lead in the final five minutes.
But the unflappable Flacco couldn't produce enough plays in the subfreezing temperatures to pull out yet another improbable playoff upset.
The second of his three interceptions in the game was returned 40 yards by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu for the decisive score with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers (14-4) advance to the Super Bowl in two weeks against the surprising Arizona Cardinals (12-7), who beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-25, in yesterday's NFC championship game.
The AFC title game was a fierce physical game, as expected, and both sides suffered key losses. Ravens running back Willis McGahee had to be stabilized and carted off the field after a violent hit by Steelers safety Ryan Clark in the final four minutes.
McGahee took a short pass from Flacco, turned to go upfield and ducked just as he was about to be hit by Clark. He fumbled the ball on the hit, and it was recovered by the Steelers.
Early this morning, McGahee was resting in UPMC Presbyterian Hospital with movement in all his limbs and was "neurologically intact," a team spokesman said. McGahee's agent told a South Florida television station that he suffered a concussion. Team doctor Leigh Ann Curl was staying with McGahee.
Flacco played his two worst games of the season against the Steelers, who swept three games with Baltimore this season. He completed only three of 14 passes in the first half, and just 13 of 30 in the game with three interceptions.
He completed 11 of 28 in a December regular-season loss at home.
The Ravens, who finished 13-6, have a busy offseason to wade through now. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is expected to be named the New York Jets' head coach, perhaps as soon as today.
Ryan said he didn't have plans to meet with anyone today, but that was subject to change. He sounded like a coach who was prepared to say his goodbyes to a team he has coached for 10 years.
"I was blessed to be in this situation, being around John and Cam Cameron," he said.
Depending on how many assistants Ryan takes with him, Harbaugh might have to restock his staff and will have to name a new coordinator with the idea of keeping the same system.
Then there will be the typical roster changes, except that in this case the Ravens have decisions to make on several prominent players.
The contracts of linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott are up, and general manager Ozzie Newsome must decide how he wants to apply the franchise tag.
Harbaugh underscored the changing face of the team in his post-game news conference.
"I thought our guys, throughout the course of the season and throughout the course of the game, demonstrated who they are as men, what they're all about," he said.
"Couldn't be more proud of them. Couldn't be more proud to stand with them in victory and today in defeat," Harbaugh said.
A Heinz Field record crowd of 65,350 waved their yellow Terrible Towels and braved a 15-degree wind chill to watch the Steelers claim their first home championship game victory in 13 years.
There were Ravens fans on hand, but they were much less conspicuous than at previous playoff stops. Among the Ravens fans who got tickets and traveled to Pittsburgh was a foursome from Annapolis that included Dick Clark, the battalion chief of the Annapolis Fire Department.
"I live for football," said Clark, 66. "When the season's over, I have withdrawal for three months. I love the Ravens."
Bryan Wentworth, Clark's son-in-law and a sales manager for a software company, gave the windbreaker off his back to another Ravens fan yesterday morning at a downtown hotel.
Wentworth, 35, said a lawyer approached him and Clark when she saw their Ravens attire, and asked if they had anything purple they could spare. Wentworth gave her the windbreaker he was wearing with the promise he'd get it back.
"How can I deny her some purple?" he said after he sent the lawyer off to a Pennsylvania Bar Association meeting filled with Steelers fans.
Clark, a season-ticket holder since the Ravens arrived in 1996, said the team achieved well beyond his expectations this season.
"I figured we'd win six or seven games," he said. "I'm absolutely amazed. Win or lose today, we had a great season." Like Harbaugh, Wentworth was already looking forward.
"They beat us up all night and were just a better team tonight," Wentworth said. "I can't wait until we see them next year."