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Only the 2006 divisional-round loss to the Colts exceeded it as an absolute blow to the gut for the players, coaches and fans.
Why was that one worse? The Ravens were coming off a 13-3 regular season and first-round bye, and playing at home in a city electrified at the prospect of finally exacting revenge on the Irsays for their middle-of-the-night departure more than two decades earlier. It was a civic crusade, more than just a game to many. The defeat brought people to their knees.
Saturday's loss was almost as awful. There's nothing more frustrating than a wasted opportunity, the realization that you left achievements on the table. The Ravens had a victory over their fiercest rivals and a trip to the AFL title game "right in the palm of our hand," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday, but they opened their palm and dropped everything. And worst of all, they did it to themselves with turnovers, penalties and dropped passes.
They were right at the top of the Super Bowl mix this year, their goals within reach, their dreams entirely possible. That doesn't happen every year.
But instead of bringing a championship football game to Baltimore for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was president, they'll watch two teams they defeated during the regular season play for the AFC title.
"It's crazy and frustrating, the way it worked out," Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain said Monday.
As the players packed up Monday, linebacker Ray Lewis reflected that he "doesn't use 'if' a lot. 'If' is a bad word."
Indeed, maybe there should be a two-week moratorium on using it around here. Because as soon as you start if-ing about Saturday's game, you're headed for despair. (If-ing leads to eff-ing.)
What if the Ravens hadn't committed three turnovers in the third quarter? What if a dubious holding call hadn't negated Lardarius Webb's late punt return for a touchdown? And of course, what if the offense had put up normal numbers instead of gaining just 28 yards in the second half and 126 overall?
That side of the ball is taking the heat, as it should. You have to perform better than that to win a playoff game. You have to exhibit more consistency than the Ravens' offense did during a season in which it was prone to long blackouts.
It will be interesting to see how the Ravens attempt to fix a unit with too much talent to finish 22nd in the league in yardage gained.
But while those paltry offensive totals provided a tangible reason for why the Ravens fell short Saturday, I believe there were less quantifiable forces also at work – and those forces were decisive. "We have to take a long look at ourselves," defensive end Terrell Suggs said in an on-point philosophical moment. The Ravens played like they thought they could win, while the Steelers played like they expected to win. There's a difference.
When the Ravens review their season, some important questions they should ask are: Why did we blow nine fourth-quarter leads during the season before that two-touchdown lead in Pittsburgh? What is it about us that causes us to refuse prosperity? How can we fix that?
Harbaugh alluded to it Monday when discussing the intangible difference between the Ravens and Steelers: "They've got some veteran guys that have been doing that for a long time. We've got some of that. If you look at a lot of the games we've won, it's been Ed Reed and Ray Lewis making those kind of plays. I think we'll continue to build that on the offensive side. They've probably got a little more on both sides of the ball right now."
Maybe more decisive play-making and more aggressive, positive thinking could have put the Ravens over the top Saturday. Maybe the indefinable quality they're missing is something a franchise needs to build to, especially when it is building around a young quarterback.
But that thought offers little solace now. Early in the third quarter Saturday, the Ravens were right where they wanted to be, in a perfect position to make something rare and unforgettable happen.
In a blink, the opportunity was gone.
It doesn't get much worse.
John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*