PITTSBURGH — One-by-one, the Ravens' defensive players stood in front of their lockers and tried to assess what had just happened. Their voices cracked and barely rose over the din of travel bags being packed and lockers being emptied.
They were sure they were going to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday and move onto next week's game against the Cincinnati Bengals with a chance to win an AFC North title. The Ravens had already surrendered two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but they weren't about to give up a third, not with only 78 seconds remaining, not after the offense had engineered one of its best drives all season.
"I knew we were going to win," Ravens safety Lardarius Webb said. "Put it on the defense and let's go out and win the game."
It's been a solid recipe for much of the season, but at the worst possible time, the Ravens defense collapsed. As a result, the team's playoff hopes are now gone. Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown on a 4-yard touchdown pass with just nine seconds to go as the Steelers engineered two fourth-quarter comebacks in a pulsating 31-27 victory over the Ravens in front of an announced 66,276 at Heinz Field.
Brown, who the Ravens had silenced while building a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, fought through hits by middle linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle before extending the ball into the end zone on the game-winning play. The touchdown, the Steelers' third in an 11 ½-minute stretch in the fourth quarter, capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive after the Ravens had taken a four-point lead with a touchdown drive with 1:18 to go.
When Joe Flacco's final desperation pass was intercepted, the Steelers (9-5) celebrated another AFC North title and their first victory over the Ravens (8-7) in the last five meetings. The Ravens, meanwhile, headed home Sunday evening knowing their season will end next week in Cincinnati. They will miss the playoffs for the third time in four years.
"It's just a tough feeling right now, when everything you work for and you don't reach your goal," Weddle said. "We're just somber, heads down. You have to give them credit. Ben got it rolling and we just needed to make one play to win the game. Our offense played great football ... gave us every chance to win the game, but we didn't do our part in the fourth quarter. That's why we lost."
Across the locker room, Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., whose 18-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter had given the visitors their first lead, tried to put the defeat in perspective.
"I thought we were going to win," Smith said. "We all probably could have made some more plays, and that's evident. But we played a good game. It came down to what, nine seconds? That's nothing to be sad about."
The Ravens had taken a 27-24 lead when Flacco, who played one of his best games all season, took the Ravens 75 yards on 14 plays with fullback Kyle Juszczyk bulling over Steelers safety Mike Mitchell on a 10-yard touchdown run. The drive ate up 5:58, but with the way Roethlisberger had led the Steelers down the field on the previous two drives, it was easy to wonder whether the Ravens left too much time on the clock.
"We're trying to score a touchdown," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "If you're saying we should have sat on the ball and then kept our fingers crossed to score later, I would say that's not a strategy I've seen attempted too often. They had a lot of time left on the clock and it's our job to get them stopped. That's what we didn't get done."
Taking over at the Steelers' 25-yard line with 1:18 to play, Roethlisberger hit tight end Jesse James for 3 yards, Brown for 8 and then James for 16 to cross midfield. A 9-yard completion to Demarcus Ayers and a 20-yard strike to Eli Rogers put Pittsburgh inside the Ravens' 20. Two more completions — a 6-yarder to Cobi Hamilton and 9 yards to James — set up the Brown touchdown.
The Ravens' defense, which had been ranked No. 1 in the NFL just two weeks earlier, was powerless to stop the Steelers, who gained 240 yards in the fourth quarter alone. After the Ravens had taken a 20-10 lead less than a minute into the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh on two touchdown drives in four minutes, 25 seconds.
Running back Le'Veon Bell finished both, with a 7-yard touchdown run and a 7-yard touchdown reception. Normally kept under wraps by the Ravens, Bell had 122 rushing yards.
"It's very disappointing, especially how our offense played," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "They showed up to play. Usually, when our offense scores 27 points and we're winning in the fourth quarter, it works out in our favor. It's very disappointing in that fashion. It happened. It sucks. They executed and they won this one. You got to applaud them. They wanted it a little bit more than we did this time. It showed by their play."
The Ravens didn't turn the ball over until Flacco's last-ditched desperation pass with no time on the clock. They were 9-of-17 on third downs and possessed the ball for more than 9 minutes longer than the Steelers. Behind hard-running rookie Kenneth Dixon, the Ravens rushed for 122 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
The Ravens' only real offensive lament was that they settled for four field goals by Justin Tucker. All five of the Ravens' first half drives extended into Steelers' territory but they managed only six points. Another attempt by Tucker was cut short when holder Sam Koch couldn't handle a high snap by Morgan Cox.
"There were a couple of plays left out there — probably five or 10 points left out there," said Flacco who was 30-of-44 for 262 yards, one touchdown pass and one interception. "They could have made a difference, but you can say that about every game. It comes down to what it comes down to at the end of the game. You are given your opportunities."
Two plays directly prevented the Ravens from building a bigger lead. A holding penalty on center Jeremy Zuttah wiped away a 14-yard run by Dixon and a potential first-and-goal situation late in the third quarter. The Ravens settled for a 46-yard field goal by Tucker and a 17-10 lead. Following an interception by C.J. Mosley on the ensuing possession, the Ravens took over on the Steelers' 11-yard line. Flacco fired a bullet to Darren Waller in the corner of the end zone, but the backup tight end had the ball knocked out of his hands by former Maryland standout Sean Davis. The Ravens were forced to accept a 23-yard field goal and a 20-10 advantage.
But even when the Steelers scored the back-to-back touchdowns, Flacco and the Ravens' offense answered. The defense, though, never could get that one stop.
"After we scored, in my mind, we have the best defense in the NFL, so it's a wrap," Juszczyk said. "I thought they're going to go out there and make a stop. … We woke up this morning and, in my mind, we were going to the playoffs. As a player, you never doubt that. We were so sure we were going to come in here and win and play next week. When the game finally ends, and that's not the reality, that's something you have to deal with."