The Ravens should have been celebrating a trip to the playoffs at Heinz Field. But like most celebrations for the Ravens on Sunday - especially the ones in the end zone - they simply weren't meant to be.
Mistakes negated three touchdowns in the second half as the Ravens imploded in a 23-20 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Ravens (8-7), who can still clinch the playoffs by winning at Oakland in the regular-season finale, could have forgone next week's drama. With the Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos losing, the Ravens would have secured a postseason berth with a win. But they couldn't hold up their end of the bargain in one of the most exasperating halves of their season.
Domonique Foxworth's interception return for a touchdown was called back because of Terrell Suggs' illegal block. Willis McGahee's 32-yard touchdown run was called back because of Kelley Washington's holding penalty. And Derrick Mason uncharacteristically dropped a pass in the end zone.
Three times, the Ravens could have taken the lead in the second half. And three times, the Ravens could only shake their heads.
"Missed opportunities is the moral of this story," Foxworth said. "It's a positive because we missed those opportunities and we're still in position to make a championship run."
That's true. The Ravens are currently the sixth and final playoff team in the AFC, the NFL confirmed Sunday night.
The Ravens, New York Jets and Broncos are all tied with 8-7 overall records and 6-5 marks in the AFC. The Jets hold the tiebreaker over the Ravens and Broncos because they have a better record among common opponents. The Ravens then edge the Broncos because they beat them this season.
So despite a physical and emotional loss to the Steelers, the Ravens can reach the playoffs for a second straight season if they can avoid a letdown at Oakland (5-10).
"I know how they'll respond," coach John Harbaugh said. "We'd get on the plane right now if we could."
With the score tied at 20, the Steelers (8-7) didn't wait until next week to seize their opportunity. After the Ravens flopped time after time, Pittsburgh used one big play - a 24-yard pass to Santonio Holmes - to reach the red zone and set up Jeff Reed's 38-yard, game-winning field goal with 5:25 left in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens' ninth loss in their past 10 trips to Heinz was marked by penalties (11 for 113 yards) and poor blocking (four sacks).
"You can go to penalties if you want, you can put your finger on whatever you want," Harbaugh said in a feisty post-game news conference, "but we're going to Oakland and we're going to play our hearts out."
Trailing 20-17 in the third quarter, it looked as if the Ravens were taking the lead when Foxworth returned an interception of Ben Roethlisberger 46 yards for a touchdown. But Suggs was flagged for an illegal block above the waist, and the Ravens had to settle for a field goal to tie the score at 20.
Suggs declined to comment after the game. Said Harbaugh: "Tough thing. Suggs has got to do a little work on that."
After the Ravens forced the Steelers to go three and out, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was penalized for a personal foul on a punt return when he plowed over two Steelers out of bounds.
Instead of starting at midfield, the Ravens began at their own 35 in what might go down as their worst drive of the season.
McGahee's 32-yard touchdown run was negated by a holding penalty on Washington, who got tangled up with cornerback Deshea Townsend about 10 yards behind McGahee.
"That call was very late," Harbaugh said. "It didn't seem like it affected the play."
Said Washington: "He was just trying to get locked up with me. He actually turned his back and threw his hands up, and that's why [they] called it. Again, the defensive back wasn't anywhere near the play."
Two plays later, Mason used a double move on the right sideline to get behind two Steelers. But the pass bounced off Mason's face mask and fell incomplete.
"That's one that I got to have, point blank," the normally sure-handed Mason said. "We're up 27-20, and they have to score a touchdown to win. I allowed an opportunity to slip away for my team. I can't allow that to happen. We just have to regroup and forget about it as soon as possible and move on."
The Ravens, however, still should have had the chance to take a three-point lead. That is, until right tackle Oniel Cousins pushed Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley to the ground.
Instead of lining up for a 43-yard field goal, the 15-yard penalty on Cousins forced the Ravens to punt.
That drive "cost us the game, probably," Harbaugh said. "We had a chance to get a touchdown, and we didn't score. We had a chance to get a field goal, we'd be in overtime right now. That hurt us."
After the Steelers went ahead 23-20, the Ravens thought they were given a reprieve. Free safety Tom Zbikowski, who was starting in place of the injured Ed Reed (one of three Ravens starters out), intercepted Roethlisberger and ran it back to the Pittsburgh 42 with 1:41 left in the game.
But cornerback Frank Walker was called for illegal contact, which negated the interception. The Ravens contend that Roethlisberger was out of the pocket so the officials couldn't call an illegal-contact penalty.
"You want to talk about the illegal contact late in the game?" Harbaugh said. "Check what the rules said."
Now, the focus turns to beating the Raiders.
Said Harbaugh: "We have our hands full, but I guarantee we can't wait for the opportunity."