Reporting Mark Zinno
Class is now in session.
There was supposed to be a better ending. There was supposed to be something greater. There was more for this group to accomplish. Now we are only left with “what if’s” and “why’s.” The reasons – and excuses – will be too many to count. Either way, it’s a moment that Baltimore won’t soon forget.
Football has always been a game of strange bounces. It is a game of successive events that seem to compound one another. So when Billy Cundiff shanked his 32 yard, game-tying field goal attempt, each of those events became more magnified, in particular, Lee Evans inability to hold on to what would have been the probable game-winning score.
In the big picture, it was a magnificently played game by the Ravens. They caught Tom Brady on an off-day by his standards and did everything they needed to do to return to the Super Bowl. For Joe Flacco, it was a game that would have been vindication. A chance to prove all of his doubters that he is a big-game quarterback. That he is a guy who the Ravens can win it all with. He proved his worth to the organization, the fans, and the experts alike. You can make all the arguments about how bad the Patriots defense was this season, but they played well in the post-season and no matter what, Joe was toughest on the toughest stage. He led his team down the field, much like he did earlier in the year in Pittsburgh. And much like in Pittsburgh, there was a crucial drop that would have won his team the game. Against the Steelers, Joe got another shot and delivered. Unfortunately this time around, the situation and the clock didn’t allow him that chance. And for the record, that final drive wasn’t about “proving his worth.” He had done that already for the previous 58 minutes. That last drive was just the punctuation on the end of the “I can take a team to a championship” statement.
So out trots Billy Cundiff for the chance to send the game into overtime. For years, Ravens fans had the luxury of Matt Stover. “Mr. Auto-Matt-ic.” Stover was watching this moment somewhere thinking, “I would never miss this kick. It’s what I live for.” This season, Billy Cundiff never gave you that confidence. His head coach knew it. Several times late in the season, when games mattered the most, John Harbaugh opted for the punt or to go for it on fourth down, leaving Cundiff on the sidelines. The punt may have been too conservative and going for it on fourth-and-whatever may have been to risky, but either way, Cundiff wasn’t the option beyond 40 yards. So when Joe Flacco put his team inside the red zone, down at the New England 14-yard line with 15 seconds left, there was no option other than Cundiff. What happened next will rank with Ravens fans as crystal clear a memory, as where they were on September 11th.
John Harbaugh said it after the win in Pittsburgh. This is a game played by men. It’s a game played by big, strong, extremely talented men. And for the 90 men that dressed in the AFC Championship game, they poured their hearts and souls into the game. Those 90 men displayed speed, power, agility, courage and raw athletic prowess. There must be nothing worse for them than to leave it all out on the field for 59 minutes and 15 seconds, to have a soccer player, in a football uniform, wearing two different cleats, ruin it for them all.
I hope for John Harbaugh and the other 52 mighty men that endured the longest 90-minute flight that any of them can remember, there is another shot at redemption.