The Ravens led all day, but they couldn't come up with one last defensive stop with the game on the line.
A late touchdown drive by the Chargers erased a Ravens' 10-point fourth-quarter lead, and gave Baltimore a crushing 34-33 defeat at M&T Bank Stadium.
"It really sucks," veteran defender Terrell Suggs said. "We're up 10 at home in the fourth quarter, and our offense gave us 33 points. Usually that's enough. But it wasn't, and that's why this is extremely disappointing. There's no other word I can say. It's really disappointing."
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers marched his team 80 yards down the field in 1 minute, 44 seconds to score the go-ahead touchdown with just 38 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Ravens had a chance at a desperation comeback in the final seconds, but those hopes ended when time expired after wide receiver Kamar Aiken was tackled just shy of the sideline* *to stop the clock.
The crushing finish drops the Ravens to 7-5 on the season in a tight race for an AFC playoff spot.
"You got to win all your home games. Especially with how tough our division is, how tough our conference is, you can't afford to give one up down the stretch," Suggs said. "We really have to play phenomenal this last quarter of the season."
Baltimore's undoing Sunday was the play of an injury-riddled secondary and the inability to score touchdowns in the red zone.
The defense allowed Rivers to pass for 381 yards and three touchdowns, including the 1-yard game winner to wide receiver Eddie Royal. Rivers picked apart the unit, and the Ravens could do little to stop him after intercepting his first pass of the game.
"It was on us," cornerback Anthony Levine said. "We didn't get the job done."
Part of the problem for Levine and the secondary is that they ended up on the wrong side of a critical penalty call late in the game to set up San Diego's go-ahead touchdown. Levine was flagged for pass interference on Royal in the end zone as both players were trying to make a play on the football – it was one of 14 Ravens penalties on the day – and that gave San Diego the ball at the Ravens' 1-yard line.
The Chargers punched it in on the next play.
"I saw a corner trying to make a play on the ball with a forearm on his chest and clavicle area being held down, not allowed to jump for the ball," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "That's a disappointing situation. I think a corner should be given the chance to defend, and I know he wasn't given a chance to defend on that play."
The Ravens had their fair share of opportunities on offense – they scored on seven of their nine drives on the day – but their biggest issue was the inability to punch in the football for touchdowns. The Ravens had to settle for four field goals in the red zone, including one with just over two minutes left that kept the door open for a San Diego comeback.
Check out the best photos from this critical AFC showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I don't really have that answer right now," Harbaugh said when asked about the trouble in the red zone. "There were some plays made, some plays not made. They stopped us running the ball a couple times, which I think was probably the key."
The deflating finish spoiled a solid overall day for the offense, where running back Justin Forsett topped 1,000 rushing yards on the season by racking up 106 yards on 24 carries. Quarterback Joe Flacco also completed 19-of-31 passes for 225 yards and a pair of touchdowns to wide receiver Torrey Smith.
"It stinks to lose a game that we should have had," Forsett said. "We let it got at the end, but our job is to go out and get focused for next week."
The saving grace for the Ravens was that Sunday's loss came on a day where the Browns and Steelers also lost, dropping all three of those teams to 7-5. The Bengals are still sitting atop the AFC North at 8-3-1.
Baltimore has little margin for error heading into the final four weeks of the season, and next week they head on the road to Miami in another key AFC showdown.
"We have to win out," Suggs said. "We have to get over it and we have to play one hell of a game in Miami."