In a season defined by disappointment, the Ravens' final victory aptly gave way to misery.
Three hours after the Ravens persevered for a 30-23 win over the Miami Dolphins yesterday at M&T Bank Stadium, their playoff hopes were dashed when Denver defeated Indianapolis.
At 7:20 last night, the Broncos officially earned the AFC's final postseason seed against a Colts team that rested most of its starters while the Ravens (9-7) could only contemplate what might have been.
A campaign that began with Super Bowl proclamations fell short of the postseason, crumbling under the weight of the overturned trade for receiver Terrell Owens, the NFL suspension of running back Jamal Lewis and injuries to six Pro Bowl players.
"We put ourselves in this position," said coach Brian Billick, whose Ravens faded after starting the season 7-3. "There's no frustrations with [the Colts] not playing their starters. So that's the way it falls."
Their victory over the Dolphins (4-12) epitomized the Ravens' up-and-down season.
Relying on a battering-ram running game and a ball-hawking defense, the Ravens were at their best, rolling out to a 27-7 lead early in the third quarter. It seemed like old times with Lewis grinding out 167 rushing yards and the defense making three interceptions.
But problems that have cost the Ravens mightily -- offensive struggles in the red zone and poor tackling -- allowed Miami to close within six points (at 27-21 late in the third quarter) and forced them to sweat out the final minutes of the game.
The players found some consolation in outlasting the Dolphins despite missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
"I'm glad we finished the job at hand," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "Regardless of what happened the past few weeks, I'm glad we took care of business. It just stinks that we didn't have our destiny in our hands. It's a bit of a shocker."
Major changes could be in order for a Ravens team that was the favorite to repeat as AFC North champion. This offseason, there could be a different look in the front office, the coaching staff and the locker room.
There is a possibility the Ravens could lose highly respected director of player personnel Phil Savage to a general manager position with another team.
The Ravens also have to evaluate the need for a big-time receiver, the concerns over an aging offensive line and the likelihood of switching back to a 4-3 defense.
The most pressing issue might be the offensive coaching staff, which has taken some heat after the Ravens' attack finished among the NFL's worst. The status of offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, who is expected to be fired, could be addressed as early as today.
Asked about Cavanaugh yesterday, Billick said, "Obviously, if you're not interested in talking about this game, my part of the news conference is over," before leaving the podium.
The Ravens took a stronger stand than that in the second half yesterday, when their playoff chances appeared to hang in the balance.
The Ravens' 27-7 advantage quickly dwindled to 27-21 after they surrendered a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to Wes Welker and a 35-yard scoring run to Sammy Morris. The Ravens, who scored just two touchdowns in five red-zone trips, later added a field goal and gave up a safety (off a Lewis fumble) to hold a 30-23 lead early in the fourth quarter.
To secure the team's fourth winning season in five years, the defense had to buckle down and not give up another touchdown in the final four series. It even held firm early in the fourth on three Miami plays at the Ravens' 1-yard line, although line judge Tom Barnes did signal a touchdown on one run before clarifying his mistake.
"I had him short all the way, but for some reason, my hands went up," Barnes said. "I shouldn't have [put my hands up]."
This near collapse sparked memories of the Ravens' loss to the Cincinnati Bengals a month ago, when they couldn't maintain a 17-point fourth-quarter bulge.
Failing to hold that lead ultimately proved to be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
"I think it's human nature to think about that game," Weaver said. "I'm just proud of the way this team refocused and dealt with the adversity. I think it shows the character of these guys that we put that Cincinnati game behind us."
What the Ravens also tried to put behind them is any notions of a divided locker room. Five days ago, cornerback Chris McAlister spoke of cracks in team unity, describing the locker room as "shifted" and "not a healthy situation."
In what seemed to be a response to those comments, the Ravens bypassed individual pre-game introductions and came onto the field as a team.
"It was just Coach [Billick] making a decision," safety Ed Reed said. "It doesn't matter to us who we introduce. We're a team regardless of who's coming out. We never stopped being a team. We never will."
The team was far from full strength, missing linebacker Ray Lewis (wrist), tight end Todd Heap (ankle) and left guard Edwin Mulitalo (triceps).
Still, the Ravens assumed control after a 76-yard touchdown pass to Miami receiver Chris Chambers, scoring 27 unanswered points mainly on the strength of their defense.
Backup defensive end Jarret Johnson tipped a screen pass to himself and scored on a 6-yard interception return midway through the second quarter. Reed then picked off his league-leading ninth pass to set the Ravens up at the Miami 2-yard line.
Lewis' short touchdown run off that turnover provided the Ravens a 27-7 lead and gave him a positive ending to a tumultuous season. He missed two games for a league suspension and another two because of an ankle injury from which he has yet to recover fully.
"After how everything went down this season and missing those games, I set my goals just to get to 1,000 yards and just to prove what type of back I really am," said Lewis, who finished the season with 1,006 yards. "Missing those games, I still came back and overcame a lot of adversity. That's a great accomplishment."
As a team, the Ravens fell short of their goals.
The Ravens jumped out to a franchise-best 7-3 record before facing a tough road stretch. They lost at three division winners -- New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh -- by a combined 64-20.
That second-half free fall left the Ravens needing Buffalo, Denver and Jacksonville to all lose yesterday in order to reach the playoffs.
The Bills lost at the same time the Ravens won, keeping the Ravens in contention until the late-afternoon games. In the end, the Broncos and Jaguars won, finally ending a Ravens season that never lived up to its promise.
"If there is anybody to blame for the situation," linebacker Terrell Suggs said, "it's definitely us."