About 15 minutes after the Ravens’ season ended late Sunday afternoon, the procession inside M&T Bank Stadium started. First came coach John Harbaugh, then five players, a dejected lot shuffling into a nearly empty press conference room, one after another, to explain why this 16-13 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was so difficult, so emotional, so fitting.
In a season of small margins and big disappointments, the Ravens had come up short for the final time. Their sixth straight loss was like so many of the others that preceded it: Victory was within reach, their injuries and illnesses and bad bounces be damned. And then it wasn’t.
The Ravens’ season had ended that suddenly, their lifeline ripped away with kicker Chris Boswell’s 36-yard field goal late in overtime, but for more than a month they’d played like an ejection from the playoff race was inevitable. When the offense needed a touchdown, it got a field goal. When the defense needed a stop, it missed a tackle. “They made the plays,” defensive end Calais Campbell said, “and we didn’t. Football is as simple as that.”
After maybe the last game of his standout career, Campbell lingered on the field briefly, absorbing the enormity of the moment and perhaps the scale of the Ravens’ collapse. When they traveled to Pittsburgh in Week 13, the 8-3 Ravens were the AFC’s No. 1 seed. They were maybe not the NFL’s best team, but they seemed to be the league’s most clutch.
But after six weeks, five losses by three or fewer points and one lingering ankle injury to quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens finished 8-9, last in the AFC North for the first time under Harbaugh and out of the postseason field for the first time since 2017. Even worse, longtime nemesis Ben Roethlisberger, in what was expected to be his final game under center for Pittsburgh, flew out of Baltimore with a sweep secured and a playoff spot essentially guaranteed.
“Everybody competed the best they could,” Harbaugh said. “We fell short in numerous games here down the stretch, in the sense that we just couldn’t find a play. We couldn’t find a play that we needed. We couldn’t find a way to put them in position to make the play that would make the difference in the game, and that’s what I feel worse about as a coach.
“Any one of these games, we could’ve found something to find a way to win the game. We would have liked to have done that, but we didn’t come up with that. So we’re not happy about that, and that’s my biggest disappointment.”
The loss stung not only because of how it ended but also because of what it represented: another missed opportunity. The Ravens’ playoff odds entering Sunday were slim. Their late-season slide had left them with about a 2% to 3% chance of grabbing the AFC’s No. 7 seed. The Ravens needed not only a win over the Steelers but also help from the woebegone Jacksonville Jaguars, two-touchdown underdogs to the visiting Indianapolis Colts.
As the Ravens entered the fourth quarter with a 10-6 lead in an offensively challenged game, Jacksonville was doing its part, putting the Colts away in an eventual 26-11 win. “It was on the scoreboard,” Harbaugh said. “So we knew about it.” If the Ravens could hold on, if the New England Patriots could beat the Miami Dolphins in their late-afternoon game, and if the Las Vegas Raiders could beat the Los Angeles Chargers in their prime-time matchup, the Ravens’ season would continue past Week 18.
It was not a simple path to the playoffs. (The Dolphins’ upset later Sunday made it impossible.) But these Ravens rarely made things easy for themselves. They didn’t Sunday. After three quarters, the Ravens seemed to have the Steelers on the ropes. Their lead was just four points, but running back Latavius Murray (16 carries for 150 yards) had broken free for a 46-yard touchdown run on the previous possession and was carrying the Ravens into the red zone on this one.
On second-and-7 from Pittsburgh’s 12, Huntley looked for Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews (six catches for 85 yards), his most trusted target, who earlier Sunday had broken the franchise’s single-season record for receptions. But a week after red-zone woes doomed the Ravens in a narrow loss to the Los Angeles Rams, and three quarters after Huntley had an overthrown pass to Andrews picked off, the offense ran into more trouble.
As he dropped back, Huntley saw Andrews settle into a soft spot into the middle of the end zone. “I felt like it was enough space,” said Huntley, making his third start since Jackson’s Week 14 ankle injury, “but I just couldn’t drive it how I wanted to.” His pass took too long to arrive. Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton drove on the throw for the interception. The Ravens came away with nothing.
“I said this a couple games ago: It’s a game of inches,” said Andrews, who blamed himself for not coming back to the ball on the end-zone throw. “That’s the truth. It’s one play here, one play there, and the game is different. And so, I know there’s all things that we want to get better at. We wanted to have made plays. Me, personally, there’s definitely plays I wish I could have made today and helped this team out a little bit more, and we win that game.”
In a season with staggering injury setbacks — 25 Ravens were placed on injured reserve — and coronavirus-related absences, the Ravens’ shortcomings could not be neatly delineated. Their troubles compounded and their margin for error shrank and their frustration grew until it all became too much. Even Sunday, Huntley’s red-zone interception was not a death knell but another grim data point in a season of what-could’ve-beens.
What if the Ravens had stopped Roethlisberger on the third-or-9 play or the third-and-6 play that extended the Steelers’ go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter, which ended with him finding wide receiver Chase Claypool for a 6-yard score and 13-10 lead? Pittsburgh had converted just two third-down chances all game before then.
What if the Ravens hadn’t settled for a game-tying 46-yard field goal from kicker Justin Tucker on their final scoring drive of regulation? They had a third-and-2 at Pittsburgh’s 28 with 88 seconds remaining, but were stopped for no gain by one of the NFL’s worst run defenses.
What if Huntley (16-for-31 for 141 yards) had connected with an open Andrews over the middle on the third-and-9 at the end of the Ravens’ overtime-opening possession, or if he’d spotted an even-more-open Rashod Bateman underneath?
What if Roethlisberger hadn’t found wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud on fourth-and-8 four minutes later for a 10-yard completion? A stop would’ve given the Ravens a short field and one final chance at victory. Instead, McCloud’s catch pushed Roethlisberger (30-for-44 for 244 yards, one touchdown and one interception) one step closer to finishing off the 11th game-winning drive of his career against the Ravens.
“I feel like you go down the road of, ‘What if? What if?’ I feel like, ‘What if I was the president? How would the world be?’” said Huntley, who finished 16-for-31 for 141 yards, his worst performance of a promising second season. “You know what I mean? We can’t say, ‘What if?’ We’ve just got to face the facts of what happened.
“And like I said, what if we would’ve made that last play in those last few games and got an extra field goal or an extra touchdown? We wouldn’t even be talking about, ‘What if?’ So I just feel like right now, we’ve got to face what’s really going on and just roll with the punches.”
It will be a longer-than-normal offseason in Baltimore, and not an especially straightforward one. Sunday’s game could have been the last in a Ravens uniform for a raft of contributors, including Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard, center Bradley Bozeman, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Campbell, inside linebacker Josh Bynes, cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Jimmy Smith and safety DeShon Elliott, among others.
The Ravens will have to decide just whom they can afford to keep. They’ll have to find out what Jackson, their franchise quarterback, believes is a fair price for a megadeal extension after a disappointing 2021. They’ll have to devise their big board ahead of a draft where they’ll pick No. 14 overall. They’ll have to evaluate what went wrong with their in-game execution and their injury prevention. They’ll have to look at the big picture and the season’s small details.
Safety Chuck Clark, one of the team’s leaders, said in a brief postgame media appearance, “Just watch how we bounce back.” The Ravens will have to wait nine months to deliver on that promise. In the aftermath of Sunday’s loss, there was no comfort in the familiar sting of defeat.
“We knew the situation coming in,” said Murray, another of the Ravens’ pending free agents. “First was taking care of business and winning the game. We didn’t do that. And if we did that, we knew we had a chance; without it, we didn’t. So none of that mattered, obviously, because we didn’t get the job done.”