On a day when the Ravens lost their smash-mouth identity, their most physical shove of the game came back to push them out of the playoffs.
An unnecessary roughness penalty on offensive tackle Orlando Brown became the game-turning play as the Ravens fell to the Tennessee Titans, 20-17, in an AFC wild-card game before 69,452 at M&T Bank Stadium last night.
Brown's two-handed pop on Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse moved the Ravens back 15 yards before their final punt and helped Tennessee start its drive at its own 37-yard line.
After limping quarterback Steve McNair engineered an eight-play, 35-yard drive, Gary Anderson's knuckling 46-yard field goal sailed six inches above the crossbar with 29 seconds remaining.
The oldest player in the NFL may have won the game, but it was the Ravens' oldest player - the 33-year-old Brown - who played an equally pivotal role in knocking out the youngest team in the playoffs.
"It hurts and that's on me," Brown said. "I see one of them choking one of my players [tight end Terry Jones]. I tried to push him to get the guy off. It wasn't intentional. I wanted to get him off. That's all I meant by it. I should have kept my cool. God, it was an emotional game."
Brown's costly blowup was one of the few times that the Ravens out-muscled the Titans.
The Titans, who advance to play at New England or Kansas City in the AFC divisional playoffs next weekend, not only ended a five-game losing streak to the Ravens, but they also ended the Ravens' physical domination of them.
As a result, the Ravens had two sources of pride - their running attack and their run defense - ripped away.
Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who had single-handedly outrushed 24 teams this season, had trouble out-rushing quarterback Anthony Wright for most of the game. The NFL rushing champion was held to a season-worst 35 yards rushing.
It was the same story for the Ravens' defense, which couldn't control the line of scrimmage or running back Eddie George. The Titans crashed the edges and rang up 165 yards rushing, the most allowed this season by the Ravens.
"Not too many words can describe," said tight end Todd Heap, who paused to collect himself. "We're hurting right now. We're not feeling too good about ourselves."
Lewis couldn't crack the NFL's top run defense. He averaged 2.5 yards per carry and didn't break any run longer than 8 yards.
There was no rhythm to the running game as Lewis was limited to a season-low 14 carries and didn't receive touches on back-to-back plays for the last 41 minutes of the game.
"I think they did soften up a little bit in the fourth quarter," said Lewis, who was held 94 yards below his season average. "But we just didn't stick with it. We didn't pound it like we should have in the fourth quarter."
Without Lewis producing on early downs, the Ravens' offense stalled often. The Ravens couldn't sustain drives because seven of their 12 third downs were for 9 yards or more.
The Ravens crossed midfield just twice and were held without a first down on seven of 13 possessions. In fact, their offense produced as many touchdowns as their defense, which tied the game in the first quarter on a 56-yard interception return by Will Demps.
"We never really got it going today," Heap said. "Give a lot of credit to the Titans. They deserved to win that probably more than we did. They played better than we did overall."
Everything that defined this rivalry - from the Titans missing field goals to Ray Lewis leveling George - crumbled before the Ravens' eyes.
Midway through the third quarter, Lewis was pushed aside by George - who used his left arm, despite his left shoulder being dislocated- in the backfield, allowing Tennessee to convert a third-and-one. Two plays later, McNair connected on a 49-yard pass to Justin McCareins on a pass that cornerback Gary Baxter simply overran. The longest pass in the game put the Titans up 14-10 with 7:59 left in the third quarter.
"They can keep talking about Ray Lewis," Titans receiver Derrick Mason said, "but he's home right now and we're in the playoffs."
McCareins' touchdown reception was the third-longest pass completed on the Ravens this season. Outside of that play, the Ravens owned McNair, the NFL's co-MVP who finished 14-for-23 for 159 yards and three interceptions.
"I was step for step with the guy," Baxter said. "McNair just underthrew the ball and he caught it. If it were a perfectly thrown ball, I would have had it."
After the Titans converted a Wright interception into a field goal and a 17-10 fourth-quarter lead, Wright led a stirring 71-yard drive. He connected on five of six passes, capping the series with a 35-yard touchdown throw to Heap to tie the game at 17.
Less than a minute later, cornerback Chris McAlister picked off McNair and the Ravens had the sellout crowd thinking of a seventh straight home victory.
"I felt like we were going to win," said Wright, who was 20-for-37 for 214 yards. "This is what we've been doing all year long. I felt the tide was turning."
Instead, a wave of emotion came crashing down on them.
On their final drive of the game, the Ravens managed 7 yards only to be pushed back 15 yards on Brown's second personal foul of the game. Instead of punting at their own 35-yard line, the Ravens kicked from their 20.
"It's unfortunate," said Billick, who scolded Brown on the sideline. "In the heat of the battle, things like that will happen. Those things will usually cost you like that."
McNair then connected on three passes for 22 yards to set up the 44-year-old Anderson's game-winning kick, which was also his season long.
The loss ended a promising season as well as the ownership of Art Modell, who brought football back to the city in 1996. Modell, who will sell the team to Steve Bisciotti, was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor before the game.
"It dawned on me toward the end that this could be the last offensive drive," said team president David Modell, who is Art's son. "But I was hoping that last offensive drive would score a touchdown and would move on to more drives elsewhere."
The future is a promising one for a team that will return a majority of its eight Pro Bowl performers including Jamal Lewis, the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year, and Ray Lewis, the league's Defensive Player of the Year.
"I thought we came together as a team this season," Jamal Lewis said. "But we will come back a much hungrier team."
Said Ray Lewis, who registered 19 tackles: "No matter how young we are, those guys fought to the last field goal. So when you say 'close,' I think we're scary close."