It was the opening week of the season, and after a brutal offensive team performance and disastrous pick-six, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco stood at his own 20-yard line with two minutes, 55 seconds remaining, needing a touchdown to win.
The situation was ripe for some Flacco magic that Ravens fans have become so accustomed to. After all, the "Mile High Miracle" happened in that very same stadium.
At first, it looked like Flacco was going to pull it off. He converted on fourth-and-9 on a surgically placed pass to tight end Crockett Gillmore. Flacco and the Ravens offense maneuvered into the Broncos' 16-yard line with plenty of time to win.
But with the game on the line, Flacco lofted a pass to Gillmore in the end zone. The pass was a bit short and Gillmore tried to reach over a defender to grab it. Instead, it bounced off his hands and was intercepted. The Broncos won.
Flacco has never been a quarterback with glitzy stats. His calling card has been his wins. Even when the going gets tough, Flacco's trademark cool demeanor prevails and often brings the Ravens a victory in the end.
But this season, the wins haven't come, and finishing has been the problem.
Flacco entered this season with 21 game-winning fourth-quarter drives on his seven-year resume. In every game thus far, he's had a chance for another. He's gone 1-4.
Flacco is the NFL's worst-rated passer in the fourth quarter so far this season.
"It gets tough to get the ball in the end zone down there against good teams in crunch time," Flacco said. "In order to be a great offense, that's what you have to do, and right now we're kind of just right in the middle of the pack."
Flacco threw an interception on his final pass of last year's AFC divisional playoff game in New England. The trend continued with a pick on his last attempt in Denver, then another in Oakland, although that drive began in almost too deep a hole with just 26 seconds left.
Against Cincinnati, Flacco had two minutes, 10 seconds left against Cincinnati to drive for a touchdown. The Ravens went four-and-out.
In Pittsburgh, the home of some of his most well-known career comebacks, Flacco delivered a key 20-yard pass to Kamar Aiken while getting crushed, putting the Ravens in field-goal range to send the game to overtime. Thanks in part to an 11-yard pass to Aiken on the Ravens' second overtime drive (but mostly the ground attack), the Ravens won with a 52-yard field goal in overtime.
Flacco didn't even count that as a late-game triumph for the offense, saying "I don't think Pittsburgh was any different. We kicked a field goal."
Against the Browns, the ground attack once again put the Ravens in position to win the game at the end. The Ravens faced a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line with 35 seconds left and Flacco got pressure in his face, faded and threw too high for Aiken. The Ravens had to settle for a game-tying field goal.
The Ravens got the ball first in overtime and Flacco was incomplete on two of three passes and Baltimore punted. The Browns won the game on the next drive.
So why is Flacco and the offense trouble finishing so far this season?
Like he said, it has come down to centimeters in a couple instances, which is almost more of a case of bad luck than bad throws.
The pass to Steve Smith Sr. on the final drive in Denver was, Smith later said, tipped. But it was tipped by such a small amount that it's barely even perceivable. The ball clanked out of Smith's hands. In Oakland, Flacco lofted another pass to Smith in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Smith had to extend to catch it, leaving one foot just a hair off the ground and unable to get back inbounds in time.
Other times, Flacco's targets could have made plays. Smith still could have caught the tipped ball and kicked himself for it afterwards. Gillmore also shouldered the blame after not coming down with the jump ball in the end zone. Flacco has operated through much of the early season without a speed threat and then Smith, Gillmore and Michael Campanaro were injured as well.
"If you look at the tape every week, you can narrow it down to two or three plays – one play – that if it went this much different, we would have won the football game," Flacco said.
"It really is, it's such a fine line, and I think we're really close. That's why we just have to keep the confidence and have faith that if we continue to put ourselves in those positions, then we're eventually going to break through and make those plays."
Flacco brought up another interesting component:* *confidence.
Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success. Head Coach John Harbaugh talked about it when referencing the defense making late-game stops, and said the same thing applies to the offense, and really all facets of life.
The Ravens offense (and defense) haven't finished games late, and with that, doubt can creep in. That's what Flacco is fighting hard against. Flacco even thinks the Ravens may need to do a little more to get over the hump.
"Our mindset probably has to be a little bit different in some of those circumstances," Flacco said.
"We have to believe that we're going to put the ball in the end zone. Sometimes down there, I think tight, late in games you can't just rely on the things that you did earlier in the game to get you in the end zone. You have to come up with something that's a little bit different that maybe goes against some of the tendencies down there just so that you can pop one. … We just have to, maybe, be aggressive."