MINNEAPOLIS – The football sailed a few yards wide of the left upright, an errant, last-second field goal try from Steve Hauschka that derailed the Baltimore Ravens’ epic comeback attempt against the Minnesota Vikings.
A furious turnaround engineered by the potent tandem of quarterback Joe Flacco passing for a career-high 385 yards and running back Ray Rice rushing for two touchdowns ended abruptly on an unsuccessful 44-yard attempt by the replacement for veteran kicker Matt Stover.
A dramatic 33-31 loss to the undefeated Vikings on Sunday before 63,689 at the deafening Metrodome stands apart as an especially bitter defeat during a season that has been defined by glaringly similar setbacks over the past three weeks.
"It’s tough for me," said Hauschka, who was tabbed to succeed Stover when they didn’t renew his contract after last season. "I feel like I let them down. That’s something I have to live with."
Hauschka wasn’t the only one culpable for a game that marks the Ravens’ third consecutive loss with the outcome determined each time in the final minute by a total of just 11 points.
A defense caught up in a rare downward spiral deserves plenty of blame as well.
And the Ravens (3-3) head into their bye at a crossroads as they squandered an opportunity to topple the undefeated Vikings (6-0) led by legendary quarterback Brett Favre.
"They are all heartbreakers," center Matt Birk said. "Every time you lose it sucks because you lost. This is professional football. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you."
"I’m sick and tired of it,” said cornerback Frank Walker, who was flagged twice for pass interference penalties in the fourth quarter.
Despite a porous secondary that Favre dissected for three touchdown passes, a usually stingy run defense run roughshod over by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for 143 yards — the second consecutive week the Ravens have allowed a 100-yard rusher and the first time that’s happened since 2005 — and an apparent late wakeup call for the entire team as they slumbered their way into a 17-point deficit, the Ravens almost pulled it off.
Almost doesn’t count, though, in the standings.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "There are many things that we can and have to get better at. But the essential element is in place, our guys have a heart of a lion. That’s what they are.
“That doesn’t make it okay not to finish the game. That doesn’t make it okay to play the way we played in some stretches, but it’s the key element. We can stand on that foundation."
Walker was beaten on a 58-yard Brett Favre bomb to imposing wide receiver Sidney Rice to set up Ryan Longwell’s fourth field goal for the final margin.
Walker was draped over Rice’s back, grabbing his jersey throughout the pattern as he tried in vain to knock the football down.
"It’s on me," Walker said. "As an NFL corner, you’ve got to go up and make a play. It’s hard to keep on the outside shoulder of a big guy and try to go over the top. I take the punishment of this one and put it in my back.”
However, Harbaugh said that a safety was supposed to help Walker in the deep middle. The safety reacted to Favre’s run fake, which left Walker vulnerable.
It was Walker’s second pass interference penalty of the game with his other infraction setting up Favre’s second touchdown pass to former Morgan State tight end Visanthe Shiancoe earlier in the fourth quarter.
"They were bang-bang plays at the discretion of the referee," Walker said. "I would rather go up and try to play the ball than let the guy catch it. I’ve never played passive. I’ve always been an active player."
Walker was playing in place of Fabian Washington, who was benched after being exploited continually by Rice.
The 6-foot-4, 202-pound wideout finished the game with six receptions for a career-high 176 yards, including a 63-yard catch behind Washington in the third quarter that led to another Longwell field goal.
"They sat me, strictly performance," Washington said. "I was having a rough day, man. Coach has to make the best decision for the team. I believe he did at the time because I was struggling. I agree with them."
The Ravens’ sluggish start, falling behind 14-0 on a pair of Favre touchdown passes to Shiancoe and Bernard Berrian in the first quarter, was nearly overcome by a sterling fourth quarter from Flacco.
He completed 10 of 16 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 144.8 quarterback rating, exploiting a secondary missing injured cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Benny Sapp (concussion).
He finished the game by completing 28 of 43 passes for 385 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 109.2 quarterback rating.
"We realize what kind of fighters we have in our locker room and that’s what we’re going to use the rest of the year," said Flacco, who led the Ravens to the AFC title game as a rookie last season. "I think we were 3-3 last year, not that that matters, but we can overcome anything."
And Rice contributed four receptions for 85 yards and a 33-yard touchdown run in the fourth.
He stiff-armed and eluded the Vikings’ big linebackers, rushing for 77 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
He also caught 10 passes for 117 yards, including a 63-yard jaunt.
"There’s no group of guys I would rather go down swinging with," Rice said. "The way we fought really showed the character on our team. It’s supposed to go down to the wire. It’s frustrating, but, at the same time, 3-3 going into a bye week isn’t always the worst thing in the world.
"I think we were in the same position last year if I’m not mistaken. One thing we are doing is establishing our identity. Any team that looks on film, they are not going to say the Ravens’ record is 3-3. They’re going to say, ‘Man, that’s a good football team.’"
In the first quarter, the Ravens were completely dominated.
They generated only 25 yards on 11 plays, punting on each of their first five possessions.
Defensively, they allowed Favre to complete 8 of his first 10 throws for 95 yards and two scores.
"We didn’t lose that game because of Hauschka’s miss," Rice said. "If we start fast and put points on the board, our defense starts fast, I think the game is a totally different outcome. But that’s what happens when you play against great teams."
Also, wide receiver Derrick Mason didn’t run through the ball and it glanced off his fingertips in the first half on a big dropped pass.
On the broken play, Flacco scrambled around to buy time and heaved it deep to Mason.
"It was close," Mason said. "It was a long-developing play. That was more than likely on me. If I would have kept running.
“I got to run through it. I can’t assume because my mental clock went off that Joe’s not doing something to buy himself more time."
A resilient Flacco who was under a lot of duress from Vikings star defensive end Jared Allen kept matching Favre’s pinpoint spirals.
He located wide receiver Mark Clayton in the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown.
Following another Longwell field goal, Flacco immediately responded by orchestrating a 49-second drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown to Mason to bring the Ravens to within striking distance at 30-24.
After All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis and the defense stuffed the Vikings for a big stop, Rice dashed off rookie left tackle Michael Oher’s block to scoot 33 yards as he high-stepped into the end zone for a touchdown to give the Ravens their first lead at 31-30.
With the crowd stunned into silence, Favre executed a pump fake and found the weak link on the Ravens’ defense to find Rice for the 58-yard strike.
"We have been in this situation before and I had faith that we would make a play," Rice said.
After the Vikings’ field goal and Flacco got the Ravens in position with four completions, the Vikings iced Hauschka with a timeout before his big miss.
Now, the Ravens have a week off before facing off with the surprising Denver Broncos.
There’s a lot to correct during the bye, especially breakdowns on a traditionally strong defense that’s coming up short at key moments.
The Ravens are one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.
"Every game has come down to the freaking last drive," Lewis said. "Every game has been a game of inches. For me being in this business for so long, it just speaks volumes for our team in the way we fight regardless of the circumstance we’ve been put in. You just have to come back to work, buckle up your chinstraps and keep on grinding."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.