OWINGS MILLS – Packing their belongings while cleaning out their lockers Monday one day after their Super Bowl dream was ruined again for the fourth year in a row, the Baltimore Ravens’ inventory included some unwanted baggage.
Mainly, carrying around the pain of a lost opportunity caused primarily by kicker Billy Cundiff shanking a chip shot field goal and Lee Evans’ dropped pass and ruminating about whether the AFC North champions’ window to contend is slamming shut.
Despite a perfect record at home, winning the division title and advancing to the AFC championship game, the Ravens (13-5) weren’t able to realize their goal of making it to the Super Bowl as they fell 23-20 to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
“It’s tough, coming up short just gets kind of old,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “This year, especially, I think we all believed we were going to win and get to the Super Bowl. This one kind of hurt a little bit more than in previous years, but you’ve just got to get back to work and try to get there again.”
This marks the Ravens’ second AFC championship game defeat in four seasons after falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers four years ago as quarterback Joe Flacco had an interception returned for a touchdown by Troy Polamalu.
The Ravens swept the annual series with the Steelers this season after being kicked out of the playoffs last season by their archrivals despite leading by two touchdowns at halftime.
Now, the Ravens are hurting again after Evans couldn’t secure the football in the end zone on an accurate Flacco pass with Cundiff hooking his 32-yard field goal try wide left.
“Disbelief,” cornerback Chris Carr said. “I think sometimes, certain years you haven’t been there and this is what you expect. I think everybody on this team truly, genuinely felt that this was our year. We really felt we were going to go to the Super Bowl.
“For us to lose the way we lost, it’s extremely shocking. We feel kind of stupid right now like, ‘What are we doing? We’re not supposed to be doing this.’ The next couple of days it will really sink in and we’ll feel the pain.”
Instead, they head into an offseason of uncertainty with several key questions looming over the organization.
Will the Ravens retain oft-criticized offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after finishing 15th in total offense, 19th in passing offense and 12th in points per game? His contract has expired and it wouldn’t be a surprise if a change is made.
Will Cundiff be dismissed after a shaky season one year removed from signing a $15 million contract as a reward for a Pro Bowl season?
Will older players like safety Ed Reed, center Matt Birk and outside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo return?
Are the Ravens going to have to rebuild or reload? Will this team ever fulfill all expectations?
“I think it just hurts because everybody knows what kind of team we are, what kind of caliber of a team we are, said Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was held without a sack in the playoffs. “Anything less than the Super Bowl is definitely an underachievement, it’s a disappointment. That window of opportunity seems like it’s closing on us, so we’ve just got to come back and try to get it done next year.”
Added inside linebacker Jameel McClain: “Time heals all wounds, but this one is going to linger for a long time. The loss is just so shocking and it hurts so much, it’s like a pain that you can’t explain.”
And the Ravens face several key contract situations, including Flacco heading into the final year of his rookie deal, Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice possibly being named the franchise player, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson becoming a free agent along with offensive guard Ben Grubbs, inside linebacker Jameel McClain and defensive end Cory Redding?
Keeping Rice isn’t a mere possibility either through the franchise tag or a new contract. It’s a definite pending action.
“That’s a no-brainer,” Suggs said. “We’re really good about that, guys that are truly Ravens, keeping them Ravens.”
Wide receiver Lee Evans had a disappointing season after being acquired via a trade from the Buffalo Bills and is due a $1 million roster bonus on the fifth day of the league year and a $3.275 million base salary.
Conversely, strong safety Bernard Pollard did a lot to justify the Ravens picking up his $500,000 roster bonus on the 10th day of the league year.
Although future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis, 36, has said he’ll return for a 17th season, there’s bound to be plenty of change on the roster.
“You know it’s going to happen but you don’t know which guys it’s going to be,” Flacco said. “It’s tough to be in our shoes and go through that. You hope they bring as many people back as they can.”
With the exception of their puzzling quartet of road losses to the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens were an improved team this season.
“We were definitely a better team this year than we were by far the past two years,” Johnson added. “We’re a more complete team, more mature team, more talented. It’s disappointing.”
The Ravens were extremely close to knocking off the top-seeded Patriots as Flacco outdueled Tom Brady with two touchdown passes.
The game was right there for the taking, but a shaky ending proved to be their undoing.
As the lone NFL team to make the playoffs for each of the past four years and win at least one playoff game, the Ravens don’t want that to be their ceiling of accomplishment. They don’t want to become this era’s Buffalo Bills.
“If you get blown out, you just say you lost,” Carr said. “But when you feel like you lost to a team that’s inferior to you, you’re always going to be second-guessing, wishing you could have done this, looking at this play, looking at that play.
“It’s extremely unsettling. The last couple years kind of felt like the Buffalo Bill, in a sense especially this year, I really felt like we had the talent to do it, but we just didn’t do it.”
It’s time now for the organization to evaluate where it stands and look ahead, after recharging during what shapes up as a long offseason.
“It sucks because it starts over,” Suggs said “Back to the training and when are you coming in for workouts and stuff like that. And then eventually training camp is going to open again, and it just sucks because we’ve done so much. Just to fall short, it’s bad.”