It wasn't just the way in which the Ravens lost their Week 17 game against the Cincinnati Bengals that visibly still stung Ravens players as they stuffed their belongings into trash bags Monday morning during the annual locker room cleanout.
It was the fact that many believed this year's team was capable of big things.
"It's heartbreaking," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "I definitely feel like we had the team to make a run."
Every year a team misses the playoffs, especially when it's so close, it's disappointing. But some years, it's evident that the team likely wasn't championship-caliber even if it were to make it to the dance (though anything can happen).
This year, the Ravens had good reason to believe they could win in the playoffs, even though they didn't beat any playoff-bound teams in the regular season.
Baltimore had won five of its last six games heading into the Week 17 regular-season finale. The one loss had been in Pittsburgh in the final minutes of the game when Baltimore had a victory slip through its fingers.
That loss, while painful and ultimately one of seven losses that kept the Ravens out of the playoffs, actually served to build more belief that if given another chance, Baltimore could knock off one of the AFC's top two seeds: the New England Patriots and Steelers. After all, the Ravens are the only team in the conference to win in New England and Pittsburgh in the playoffs in recent years.
Baltimore had also turned its greatest weakness for much of the season (the offense) into a strength. After ranking near the bottom of the league for the first seven weeks, no AFC team averaged as many points as the Ravens (29.4 points per game) since Week 8.
After the Ravens' 23-16 Week 12 win against the Houston Texans, quarterback Joe Flacco said the Ravens had to get more aggressive and take more chances on offense if they were going to make any noise in the playoffs.
"In order for us to take the next step for real, we're going to have to let it loose a little bit and see where it takes us," he said. "We want [to win] the Super Bowl. I've been in this league long enough to know, if you don't win the Super Bowl, it doesn't mean anything. If we believe we can win the Super Bowl with how we're playing right now, I'm all for it. I really am. We can all take a look at that and say it's probably not super-realistic. We need to go out there, and we need to go get it, and we need to be better on our side of the ball."
The Ravens accomplished that, in large part because of Flacco's improved play himself. From Weeks 13 (after Houston) through Week 16, Flacco had an average quarterback rating of 98.3.
He threw seven touchdowns to one interception over that span, giving hope to the emergence of the "January Joe" that had led Baltimore to road playoff wins and a Super Bowl win earlier in his career.
The first half against the Cincinnati Bengals, however, was an offensive slog. Baltimore struggled to pick up first downs behind a myriad of issues, including inaccurate throws and drops. A third-quarter pick-six after the offense was finally moving the ball, which came on a throw slightly behind wide receiver Chris Moore that he juggled just long enough to be intercepted, made matters worse.
But in true "January Joe" fashion, Flacco and the offense rallied in the second half and eventually gave the Ravens a lead. It was the kind of comeback that could have served as one final giant jolt of confidence heading into the playoffs.
When asked if he thought the Ravens were capable of a playoff run, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said, "Absolutely. Especially after the way we fought in the second half."
Ultimately, the Ravens' comeback was spoiled and Baltimore is left watching the Buffalo Bills and their fans celebrate their first playoff trip since 1999. For the third straight season, the Ravens were left on the outside looking in.
"We've gone to battle on the football field together for the last 17 weeks, and you try to create something special and get yourself into the playoffs and make a nice little run and [have] something that you'll remember forever," Flacco said Sunday night.
"So obviously, when you put that kind of work in and throughout the course of 17 weeks aren't quite good enough, it's tough on us all."