The Ravens had their playoff destiny all but secured after jumping out to a 21-7 lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers, but turnovers, penalties and blown coverages were too costly.
More to the point, turnovers, penalties and blown coverages in the third quarter were too costly.
As the lights dimmed at a raucous Heinz Field Saturday night, the Steelers found themselves heading to the AFC Championship with a 31-24 victory, while the Ravens watched their Super Bowl hopes die.
The Ravens turned in a disastrous third period, posting more turnovers (three) than yards (-4) as they let the Steelers tie the game at 21. Pittsburgh later sealed their win with a killer third-down completion in the fourth quarter.
In allowing the Steelers back in the battle, Baltimore simply couldn't shift momentum back in their favor.
"All you can do in life is take a shot at being great," said Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh. "That's all you can do. Our guys did that all year, we just weren't great enough today to win a football game, and that's disappointing. But that doesn't discourage us or frustrate us. We'll be back. We can't wait to be back and get started."
The suddenness of finality adds to the discomfort, however.
The Ravens had their bitter AFC North rival on the ropes and looked primed to finish them off until the meltdown.
A defense that had played strong in the first half stopped the Steelers on their initial possession after halftime, but was worn down after running back Ray Rice lost his first fumble of the season and quarterback Joe Flacco gave up an interception and a fumble on a muffed snap.
The fact that each turnover was in Ravens territory didn't help.
Two snaps after Rice had the ball knocked loose by safety Ryan Clark at Baltimore's 23-yard line, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found tight end Heath Miller in the end zone to pull within 21-14.
It was 21 all after Flacco (16-of-30 for 125 yards) put too much loft under a deep ball to Todd Heap, allowing Clark to nab a pick at the Ravens' 43-yard line to set up an 8-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward.
The Steelers then took the lead following a bad exchange between center Matt Birk and Flacco. The fumbled snap was up for grabs, and defensive tackle Brett Keisel recovered at the 23.
The Ravens' defense was spurred by a 9-yard sack by Terrell Suggs on third-and-6, but kicker Shaun Suisham nailed a 35-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh a 24-21 advantage.
"I'll tell you time and time again, the No. 1 thing you cannot do is turn the ball over and win," said linebacker Ray Lewis. "It's too much of a momentum swing."
What's more, when the Ravens got even in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger launched a 58-yard bomb to rookie Antonio Brown on third-and-19. The sixth-round draft pick got a few steps behind cornerback Lardarius Webb to make the game-sealing grab and set up Rashard Mendenhall's second touchdown of the day.
"He outran me," a dejected Webb said. "I'm not supposed to let him get behind me, but he did. He made a play. Now, I'm just trying to move on from it."
Prior to the meltdown, it seemed as if the Ravens were guaranteed a spot in the AFC Championship.
Pittsburgh scored on their first possession of the game, using a questionable 37-yard pass-interference penalty on cornerback Josh Wilson to cross midfield. The Steelers then logged seven-consecutive runs (including one Roethlisberger scramble) en route to a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Mendenhall.
But Flacco answered big, engineering a 10-play, 68-yard touchdown drive on the ensuing series. The march was aided by a pass-interference call when Pittsburgh's Anthony Madison – who subbed for an injured Bryant McFadden – was too handsy with wideout Derrick Mason on a 33-yard attempt.
Flacco let Rice do the rest with a 14-yard jaunt up the middle, following key blocks from fullback Le'Ron McClain and wideout Anquan Boldin to post the third-longest run against the Steelers this year.
Two plays later, Roethlisberger was dropped by Suggs, who logged three sacks and two quarterback hits, and fumbled. The ball was thought to be an incomplete pass, but no whistle blew, and defensive end Cory Redding picked up the idle football and waltzed untouched across the goal line.
The Ravens capitalized on another fumble in the second quarter, when linebacker Dannell Ellerbe popped Mendenhall on Pittsburgh's 16-yard line and Ed Reed recovered. That led to a 4-yard dart to a wide-open Heap in the end zone.
The Ravens nearly took a fourth-quarter lead when Webb took a punt 55 yards for a touchdown, but that was called back by a holding penalty on Marcus Smith. Baltimore had to settle for a 24-yard Billy Cundiff field goal to knot the score again, even though a sure touchdown pass bounced off Boldin's chest on third down.
Roethlisberger then went to work securing his seventh-straight win over the Ravens, piloting an 11-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that left only one minute, 33 seconds on the clock.
The Ravens had one last chance at midfield, but their final series was derailed by two incompletions, a Flacco sack and a dropped fourth-down conversion by T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
"The bottom line is as much as they had control of the game in the second half, when the game was on the line, I wanted my number to be called. And it was, and I didn't catch it," said Houshmandzadeh. "That's basically the moral of the story."
The Ravens head back to Baltimore having lost in the divisional round of the playoffs for the second year in a row.
A 12-4 regular-season record is something to be proud of, but many players and coaches will still consider what could have been.
"We had a good year this year. It's just disappointing when you come up short," said Flacco. "You feel like you have a team that can move on and win the Super Bowl. We have a special locker room, and guys are going to be disappointed. I'm disappointed.
"It's tough to lose these kind of games, especially when you feel the way you feel about those guys. And how we felt as a team this year, which was pretty darn good. We felt we couldn't be stopped at times."