FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens were just 14 yards away from the Super Bowl. They came no closer.
Lee Evans had a ball stripped from his hands in the end zone, Dennis Pitta had another pass batted away as he was about to grab it and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.
It all happened in 16 seconds as time ran out on the Ravens’ season.
“When you get opportunities to make plays,” Evans said, “you’ve got to make them.”
Baltimore didn’t and the New England Patriots are headed to their sixth Super Bowl in 11 years after a 23-20 win in Sunday’s AFC championship game.
The stunned Ravens are going home, forced by their own failures to look toward next season two weeks before they wanted to.
“Just because we lost doesn’t mean we are defeated,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We’ll most definitely be back. Everyone in the AFC, in the NFL, knows they are going to have to deal with us.”
The Patriots had their hands full on Sunday.
Trailing 23-20, the Ravens got the ball at their 21-yard line with 1:44 left after a punt. Joe Flacco led them downfield to a second-and-1 at the Patriots 14 with 27 seconds to go.
On the next play, Flacco connected with Evans in the deep right corner of the end zone, but Sterling Moore knocked the ball to the ground. Some replays indicated Evans may have had control of the ball long enough for a touchdown, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh was surprised that officials didn’t review the play.
In the last two minutes of a half, coaches cannot challenge calls; only replay officials can decide to take another look. But Harbaugh didn’t think a victory had been taken away.
“I am not saying anything,” he said. “If we had played a little better, made another play or two, we would have won the football game.”
The next play, for example.
Flacco rolled out and threw to Pitta at the 3-yard line. But Moore, again at the last instant, batted the ball away.
Two chances down, one to go.
“It’s a kick I’ve kicked a thousand times in my career,” Cundiff said. “The timing was just a little off.”
The snap was good. Holder Sam Koch set it down, although the laces weren’t completely facing forward. Still, it was only 32 yards.
As Cundiff’s kick from the right hash mark sailed to the left of the goal post, running back Ray Rice stared in disbelief from the sideline, mouth wide open. Receiver LaQuan Williams clasped the back of his head with both hands.
And why shouldn’t they be surprised? Cundiff was a first-team All-Pro last season and hadn’t missed a fourth-quarter field goal in two seasons. Of his nine misses this season, none was shorter than 34 yards. And throughout the NFL, kickers made all 24 attempts from exactly 32 yards during the regular season.
“You have to take it personally,” Cundiff said. “I get paid to make field goals.”
Harbaugh didn’t even let him try on the Ravens previous series.
With a fourth-and-six at the Patriots 33, Flacco threw an incompletion to Pitta. The kick would have been at least 50 yards and Cundiff had missed five of his six attempts from 50 yards or more this season.
“From a percentage standpoint, we probably had a better chance of getting the first down,” Harbaugh said. “We were throwing the ball well there. That’s a long field goal.”
The much-criticized Flacco played one of his best games of the season, completing 22 of 36 passes for 306 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His rating was 95.4. Tom Brady’s was just 57.5, his lowest since a 49.1 in a 33-14 playoff loss to the Ravens on Jan. 10, 2010.
And Flacco completed five of seven passes before the oh-so-close toss to Evans.
“He played his tail off,” Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said, “and for the people who keep dogging him, man, if you never played this game, shut up.”
After the failed fourth-down play on their next to last possession, the Ravens forced the Patriots to go three-and-out.
Then Baltimore started its final drive of the season. There was the pass to Evans.
“I feel like I had it, but it came out,” Evans said. “I don’t know how to put it into words. Honestly, it’s the most disappointing part of all of this that I feel personally that I let everybody down.”
Then came the pass to Pitta.
And, finally, the kick by Cundiff.
“Not one play won or lost this game,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “There’s no `Oh, Billy’s the fault. Billy missed the (kick).’ There’s no freaking `Billy missed the kick.’ It happened. Move on.
“We’re grinders,” he said, wiping his face with a towel in the quiet Ravens locker room. “We’re coming home and we’re coming home with smiles. But, most importantly, when we start back training, we’re coming back (ticked) off. Why wouldn’t we be?”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)