PITTSBURGH — An epic meltdown of colossal blunders and breakdowns spelled doom for the Baltimore Ravens, suffering a crushing defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers that transformed a normally vibrant locker room into the atmosphere of a morgue.
Squandering what appeared to be a commanding lead, the Ravens didn’t have to look further than the mirror for the reasons behind their debacle of a 31-24 AFC divisional playoff loss Saturday night at Heinz Field.
The Ravens committed three turnovers, surrendering their two touchdown lead as two fumbles and an interception directly led to 17 unanswered points for the AFC North champion Steelers.
"It’s a shock," offensive tackle Marshal Yanda said. "When it’s over, it hits you like a sledgehammer. We’re locked in for six months and then one game and it’s over. It’s rough, it hurts."
The game was ultimately decided in the final two minutes when Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall plunged into the end zone from two yards out. However, the momentum was seized in the third quarter when the Ravens ruined their chances with chronic turnovers.
"Losing to your rival when you were up 21-7 at the half, you’re behind enemy lines and you didn’t get them off the field, it sucks," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who played a terrific game with three sacks. "You have to take your hat off to them.
"We didn’t put them away, so we had nobody but ourselves to blame but ourselves. It sucks, you can’t say the refs took one. We have to take a long look at ourselves. This isn’t our season, and it comes to the hands of the Steelers."
The third-quarter miscues started with the lone fumble of the year by running back Ray Rice when free safety Ryan Clark ripped it out of his hands.
Two plays later, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller for a nine-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to 21-14. It’s the first third quarter touchdown the Ravens have allowed this season.
This marks the Ravens’ seventh consecutive loss to Roethlisberger, whose second-seeded Steelers advance to the AFC championship game to play the winner of today’s New England Patriots-New York Jets game at Gillette Stadium.
"It’s heartbreaking for us to lose the way we lost," middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "We understand what kind of game this was going to be."
Flacco completed just 16 of 30 passes for 125 yards, one touchdown and one interception for a 61.1 passer rating.
"We don’t feel good about this one," Flacco said. "When you look at those turnovers, you could look at it and say we beat ourselves. You say, ‘Hey, that’s why we lost.’"
Subsequently, Flacco fumbled on a mistimed snap by six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk.
And that set up Shaun Suisham’s 35-yard field goal as the Steelers took their first lead of the game.
"In a sense, you can’t believe the first one, the second one and the third one," said wide receiver Derrick Mason, who didn’t catch a pass. "It’s like, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’"
The Ravens tried to manufacture a late comeback, but flubbed two opportunities to get in position.
An erratic Flacco overthrew an open Todd Heap, sailing the pass incomplete deep over the middle to his tight end. And veteran wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh had an accurate Flacco pass bounce off his chest on fourth down, a play that would have gone for a first down. That turned the ball over to the Steelers and they ran out the clock.
"When the game was on the line, I wanted my number to be called," Houshmandzadeh said. "It was, and I didn’t catch it. That’s basically the moral of the story. I’ve always made that play. It’s almost like it’s not real.
"I can’t believe it. I jumped up, and I was indecisive whether I was going to catch the ball with my hands or try to body catch it. It was too late. I can’t believe that happened, I would bet every dollar I have that I make that."
Minutes earlier, three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin allowed a pass to deflect off his chest in the end zone on a low, accurate pass from Flacco.
And the Ravens were forced to settle for a 24-yard Billy Cundiff field goal that tied the score at 24-24.
"I tried to come up with it, it was low," Boldin said. "It was a tough play. It was a low ball. You can’t turn the ball over. That’s what killed us."
The fumble by Birk was inexplicable, too.
The Ravens haven’t had exchange problems all season long.
"Some mistakes obviously like snapping it early," Birk said. "That’s kind of a self-inflicted wound. They’re making plays. On the road and in the playoffs, you’ve got to be at your best when your best is needed."
The Ravens only had 12 first downs to the Steelers’ 21.
The Ravens generated just 126 yards of total offense, averaging 2.4 yards per offensive play.
They rushed for only 35 yards, averaging 1.9 yards per rush.
"The biggest thing was the turnovers," Flacco said. "We didn’t play a perfect game, but we probably could have won without playing a perfect game if we hadn’t turned the ball over."
In the fourth quarter, a 55-yard Lardarius Webb punt return for a touchdown was nullified by a controversial holding call on wide receiver Marcus Smith.
"I lock up, drive and my feet, try and keep my hands inside, work the technique we work on every day in practice," Smith said. "I thought it was clean. The referee throws a flag. I think it’s a clean block. I’m talking trash, thinking it’s effective, thinking we ran the kick back and there’s a flag on the field.
"I didn’t think it was on me. I thought no way could it be on me. That situation in the game you never want to be that guy, for any reason. You want to be that guy making the play on the other side. I was honestly disgusted with myself and the play in general. We can’t have that period, if it was an accident, if it was the referee’s fault for whatever reason. At that point in the game, everything’s on the line."
Webb was involved in another big play where he was beaten badly by wide receiver Antonio Brown for a 58-yard reception that set up Mendenhall’s game-winning touchdown.
It was bizarre that the Ravens allowed that long of a gain in a prevent defense on 3rd-and-19.
"That’s been our philosophy all year is don’t let the ball get thrown over your head," Suggs said. "It’s a prevent defense. It’s a third and 19, you can give up 18. Get off the field, and the offense has an opportunity to win the game.
"But somehow we gave up a deep one. I don’t know how, I wasn’t back there. I don’t know what happened. All I know is some dude caught the ball."
In the first half, the football practically looked lonesome, ignored while lying on the ground for several seconds.
Lewis didn’t make a move toward the Roethlisberger fumble forced by Suggs on a blindside hit after pumping the football three times.
It wasn’t of any interest to defensive tackle Haloti Ngata or Steelers offensive guard Ramon Foster even though it was lying at his feet.
However, the whistle hadn’t blown.
So, veteran defensive end Cory Redding reacted alertly.
Never having appeared in the playoffs before this season and a few seasons removed from playing for the winless Detroit Lions, Redding scooped up the fumble and rumbled 13 yards for the touchdown.
It gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter.
The Steelers challenged the ruling, but referee Jeff Triplette upheld the call. He announced that Roethlisberger’s arm was going backward at the time of Suggs’ concussive hit.
The Ravens responded immediately to the Steelers’ early touchdown.
The Ravens drove 10 plays and 68 yards, achieving the bulk of their output on a pass interference penalty called on cornerback Anthony Madison. Madison never made a play on the ball, roughing Mason before it arrived. The 33-yard infraction set up a strong run by Rice.
He ran through strong safety Troy Polamalu, decking the Pro Bowl safety on a draw play.
Showing patience, Rice waited for his blocks to develop before bursting through a gaping hole on the right side of the line. His 14-yard touchdown run tied the score in the first quarter.
The Steelers struck first, building an early lead through a combination of penalties, Roethlisberger throws and some hard-nosed running by Rashard Mendenhall.
Mendenhall bulled into the end zone from one yard out to stake the Steelers to a 7-0 lead.
The Steelers positioned themselves through a Roethlisberger strike to Mike Wallace for 20 yards and a 37-yard defensive pass interference call on cornerback Josh Wilson.
Busting into the end zone off right guard, Mendenhall ran the football four consecutive times on the red-zone sequence.
Now, the Ravens have a long offseason to contemplate what went wrong.
As good a season as the Ravens had, going 13-5 and winning five consecutive games after their first loss to the Steelers in December, this setback figures to haunt them for a while.
"We’re both good football teams," Flacco said. "The bottom line is they’re better at winning right now than we are. We have to improve. We’re just not there yet."