OWINGS MILLS – Packing their belongings while cleaning out their lockers Monday one day after their Super Bowl dream was ruined again for the fourth year in a row, the Baltimore Ravens' inventory included some unwanted baggage. Mainly, carrying around the pain of a lost opportunity caused primarily by kicker Billy Cundiff shanking a chip shot field goal and Lee Evans' dropped pass and ruminating about whether the AFC North champions' window to contend is slamming shut.
Despite a perfect record at home, winning the division title and advancing to the AFC championship game, the Ravens (13-5) weren't able to realize their goal of making it to the Super Bowl as they fell 23-20 to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
"It's tough, coming up short just gets kind of old," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "This year, especially, I think we all believed we were going to win and get to the Super Bowl. This one kind of hurt a little bit more than in previous years, but you've just got to get back to work and try to get there again."
This marks the Ravens' second AFC championship game defeat in four seasons after falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers four years ago as quarterback Joe Flacco had an interception returned for a touchdown by Troy Polamalu.
The Ravens swept the annual series with the Steelers this season after being kicked out of the playoffs last season by their archrivals despite leading by two touchdowns at halftime.
Now, the Ravens are hurting again after Evans couldn't secure the football in the end zone on an accurate Flacco pass with Cundiff hooking his 32-yard field goal try wide left.
"Disbelief," cornerback Chris Carr said. "I think sometimes, certain years you haven't been there and this is what you expect. I think everybody on this team truly, genuinely felt that this was our year. We really felt we were going to go to the Super Bowl.
"For us to lose the way we lost, it's extremely shocking. We feel kind of stupid right now like, ‘What are we doing? We're not supposed to be doing this.' The next couple of days it will really sink in and we'll feel the pain."
Instead, they head into an offseason of uncertainty with several key questions looming over the organization.
Will the Ravens retain oft-criticized offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after finishing 15th in total offense, 19th in passing offense and 12th in points per game? His contract has expired and it wouldn't be a surprise if a change is made.
Will Cundiff be dismissed after a shaky season one year removed from signing a $15 million contract as a reward for a Pro Bowl season?
Will older players like safety Ed Reed, center Matt Birk and outside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo return?
Are the Ravens going to have to rebuild or reload? Will this team ever fulfill all expectations?
"I think it just hurts because everybody knows what kind of team we are, what kind of caliber of a team we are, said Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was held without a sack in the playoffs. "Anything less than the Super Bowl is definitely an underachievement, it's a disappointment. That window of opportunity seems like it's closing on us, so we've just got to come back and try to get it done next year."
Added inside linebacker Jameel McClain: "Time heals all wounds, but this one is going to linger for a long time. The loss is just so shocking and it hurts so much, it's like a pain that you can't explain."
And the Ravens face several key contract situations, including Flacco heading into the final year of his rookie deal, Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice possibly being named the franchise player, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson becoming a free agent along with offensive guard Ben Grubbs, inside linebacker Jameel McClain and defensive end Cory Redding?
Keeping Rice isn't a mere possibility either through the franchise tag or a new contract. It's a definite pending action.
"That's a no-brainer," Suggs said. "We're really good about that, guys that are truly Ravens, keeping them Ravens."
Wide receiver Lee Evans had a disappointing season after being acquired via a trade from the Buffalo Bills and is due a $1 million roster bonus on the fifth day of the league year and a $3.275 million base salary.
Conversely, strong safety Bernard Pollard did a lot to justify the Ravens picking up his $500,000 roster bonus on the 10th day of the league year.
Although future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis, 36, has said he'll return for a 17th season, there's bound to be plenty of change on the roster.
"You know it's going to happen but you don't know which guys it's going to be," Flacco said. "It's tough to be in our shoes and go through that. You hope they bring as many people back as they can."
With the exception of their puzzling quartet of road losses to the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens were an improved team this season.
"We were definitely a better team this year than we were by far the past two years," Johnson added. "We're a more complete team, more mature team, more talented. It's disappointing."
The Ravens were extremely close to knocking off the top-seeded Patriots as Flacco outdueled Tom Brady with two touchdown passes.
The game was right there for the taking, but a shaky ending proved to be their undoing.
As the lone NFL team to make the playoffs for each of the past four years and win at least one playoff game, the Ravens don't want that to be their ceiling of accomplishment. They don't want to become this era's Buffalo Bills.
"If you get blown out, you just say you lost," Carr said. "But when you feel like you lost to a team that's inferior to you, you're always going to be second-guessing, wishing you could have done this, looking at this play, looking at that play.
"It's extremely unsettling. The last couple years kind of felt like the Buffalo Bill, in a sense Especially this year, I really felt like we had the talent to do it, but we just didn't do it."
It's time now for the organization to evaluate where it stands and look ahead, after recharging during what shapes up as a long offseason.
"It sucks because it starts over," Suggs said "Back to the training and when are you coming in for workouts and stuff like that. And then eventually training camp is going to open again, and it just sucks because we've done so much. Just to fall short, it's bad."
Joe Flacco states his case for contract extension
OWINGS MILLS – Joe Flacco delivered crisp spirals all over the field at Gillette Stadium in the AFC championship game Sunday night, nearly leading the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl.
By outdueling New England Patriots legendary quarterback Tom Brady, Flacco might have made his most convincing argument that he's worthy of a lucrative contract extension.
During the Ravens' 23-20 loss to the Patriots, Flacco completed 22 of 36 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns with one interception for a 95.4 quarterback rating.
Now, Flacco awaits contract negotiations with the Ravens during the offseason.
"I've said it all along: I think I'm the quarterback that I am," said Flacco, who has won five of nine career playoff games and gone 44-20 during the regular season. "I think the first four years that I've played here we've gone to the playoffs every time and won a game. I think the last two years that I've played in the playoffs, I've played well in the playoffs.
"Like I said earlier, I think when you watch the film and you're a guy in this organization, I think that you can say, ‘Hey, he's played pretty damn good for us.' But like I said, you never know what's going to happen. So, we'll see."
Flacco, 27, looked ready for business Monday having shaved off his Fu Manchu mustache.
Flacco nearly delivered a game-winning touchdown drive, but his pass was mishandled by wide receiver Lee Evans and it got knocked out of Evans' hands by cornerback Sterling Moore.
He averaged 7.2 yards per pass play.
"That's the Joe we know," center Matt Birk said. "I don't know why, but for some reason Joe gets beat up more than he should. We're not surprised
"We're proud of him. He's a hell of a quarterback, a hell of a leader. He'll be around for a long time. You guys can kick him around for 10 more years."
In order for that to happen, though, the Ravens will need to agree to terms with the former first-round draft pick from Delaware who has never missed a start in four NFL seasons.
Flacco passed for 3,610 yards, 20 touchdowns and a dozen interceptions last season. For his career, Flacco has passed for 13,816 yards, 80 touchdowns and 46 interceptions for a 86.0 quarterback rating.
Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti has already declared that the team wants to reward Flacco with a new deal prior to the final year of his rookie deal next season.
Flacco is due a $4.61 million base salary in 2012 after triggering a $3.25 million escalator clause. He's also due a $2.1 million roster bonus.
Will the Ravens look to pay Flacco in the neighborhood of Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick?
He received a seven-year, $62.1 million extension that included $24 million in guaranteed money.
It's believed those numbers would be regarded as low by the Flacco camp, though.
And the Ravens are regarded as unlikely to pay Flacco how the Cincinnati Bengals once did with former quarterback Carson Palmer with a $118.75 maximum value contract, or New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning's $106.9 million deal that includes $35 million in guaranteed money and a $13 million bonus.
"Joe has been awesome for us all year," said tight end Dennis Pitta, one of Flacco's closest friends. "I think he deserves a big contract. I think he deserves to be paid, first and foremost, for having to put up with all the criticism."
Flacco left no doubts about his intentions for this offseason. He wants to get the contract taken care of.
"Definitely," he said. "We'll see how it goes. If it goes, it goes. If it doesn't, it doesn't."
And Flacco and his wife, Dana, are expecting their first child in June.
He has no major travel plans.
"I'm sure we'll do something, nothing too big," Flacco said. "I don't really like to go places. I'm sure she doesn't like to hear that. Just hang out with some friends and relax a little bit."
Notebook: Confusion before missed field goal
Pagano interviewing for Colts job today
OWINGS MILLS – Chaos reigned even before Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff flubbed a potential game-tying field goal in the AFC championship.
There was confusion about what down it was prior to Cundiff misfiring wide to the left from 32 yards.
The scoreboard at Gillette Stadium indicated it was third down when it was actually fourth down.
So, the former Pro Bowl kicker arrived late onto the field with the play clock ticking down and had to rush to get set for the kick. And Cundiff missed the field goal with 15 seconds remaining, costing the Ravens a chance to go to overtime.
Quarterback Joe Flacco threw incomplete on two throws on second and third down after a nine-yard gain on a reception by wide receiver Anquan Boldin where he fumbled out of bounds one yard shy of a first down.
"There was just a lot of confusion on that last play," Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said Monday. "Those last two plays, it happened so fast."
Should Cundiff or the coaching staff have called a timeout to get things back in order?
"Yeah, that never occurred to me," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I didn't think that. You know, looking back at it now, maybe there was something we could have done. But in the situation, it didn't seem like we were that rushed on the field. Thought we were in pretty good shape."
In a radio interview Monday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he had considered calling timeout to freeze Cundiff.
However, Belichick thought that the Ravens were rushing and didn't think it made sense for him to call timeout.
"We thought about it, we talked about it," Belichick said. "I thought they were a little late making the substitution. I thought they sent it out a little bit late. It was fourth-and-2, something like that. I thought maybe they might have even lost track of the downs. It just seemed like it was a late substitution.
"It just seemed to me like they were rushing a little bit. I felt we were better off letting them go, letting them rush and handle it under pressure rather than give them a chance to settle down and get it all lined up properly. We definitely thought about it."
Cundiff made no excuses for the mistake and has been accountable about what happened.
He missed a crucial kick.
"Perspective is a tough thing to find," Cundiff said Monday. "This kind of situation that happened, it stings, and it's supposed to sting. When you think about the big picture, it's really important to put things in the proper place.
"Obviously, these kind of situations, they don't define a person, but it's a response, in my opinion, that defines somebody. So, I can either go ahead and roll over, or I can pick myself back up knowing that it's going to sting, but I am going to get back to work and prepare for next year."
Cundiff dealt with a painful left calf injury in December that forced him to miss one game, connecting on only 2 of 5 field goals in December.
He went 1 of 6 from 50 yards and beyond one year removed from making the Pro Bowl.
"It's tough to disappoint your teammates, it's tough to go out there and fail," Cundiff said. "At the same time, I have had a lot of success. I feel like I am going to continue to have success. You have to know what's important, and for me, obviously, family really helps at this time. Family and faith."
Cundiff said his teammates and coaches have been supportive of him.
"There are a lot of people that I think, at first, thought they were going to talk me off the ledge," he said. "I think to have that mentality towards me, they obviously don't understand. A lot of it was a lot of support, and that's really nice because it's nice to know that guys know I work hard and that I care."
PAGANO TO INTERVIEW FOR COLTS JOB: Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano didn't go to the Senior Bowl with the coaching staff this week.
That's because he's interviewing for the Indianapolis Colts' head coaching vacancy today.
Pagano had dinner with Colts team officials Monday night, including owner Jim Irsay. His formal interview starts today.
In his first year as defensive coordinator, Pagano's defense ranked third in the NFL in total defense, second in rushing defense and fourth in passing defense. They allowed 16.6 points per game to rank third in the league.
Pagano has been praised for his aggressive, confident style, and the defense intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady twice in the AFC title game.
They had nine sacks in a win over the San Francisco 49ers.
If Pagano lands the job, linebackers coach Dean Pees and defensive line coach Clarence Brooks would be the top internal candidates.
PRO BOWL CHANGES: Since Patriots offensive guard Logan Mankins can't go to the Pro Bowl with his team advancing to the Super Bowl, Ravens offensive guard Ben Grubb has been named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad.
As a Pro Bowl alternate, Grubbs was next in line to go to the Pro Bowl.
Meanwhile, Suggs has withdrawn from the Pro Bowl due to an undisclosed injury and was replaced by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison.
Rice is also expected to pull out of the Pro Bowl
CARR OUTLOOK: Signed to a four-year, $14 million contract that included a $3.8 million signing bonus before the season, cornerback Chris Carr played sparingly due to a back injury.
He was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career during the Ravens' AFC divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans.
Carr finished with just 19 tackles, one sack and three pass deflections with no interceptions.
He could be a candidate to be released along with cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who has a $27.1 million contract.
"I might be here, I might not be here," Carr said. "We're going to have to see."
INJURY UPDATE: Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was on crutches Monday and in a walking boot after spraining his right foot against the Patriots.
He was scheduled to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam Monday. However, the injury isn't expected to sideline him for long this offseason.
Offensive tackle Michael Oher is dealing with a torn lateral meniscus suffered against the Texans and a right ankle sprain.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata disclosed Sunday that he dealt with a painful thigh injury for most of the season.
He incurred a thigh injury against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 30 that limited him in practice heading into the Ravens' win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Yeah, but you play through it," Ngata said. "You don't think of it. No excuses, I try to do whatever I can."
ROSTER MOVES: The Ravens signed seven players to reserve/future deals, meaning they'll be on the offseason roster and can train with the team.
That includes running back Damien Berry, wide receiver Rodney Bradley, tight end Davon Drew, defensive tackle Bryan Hall, wide receiver/return specialist Phillip Livas and wide receiver Patrick Williams
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