One and done

BALTIMORE -- It was yet another heartbreak to endure, just one more stinging slap in the face from the football team this city used to love unconditionally.

Nearly a quarter-century after those infamous Mayflower vans snuck the Colts off to the Indianapolis on a snowy night, Baltimore is hurting again this morning and perhaps for a very long time.

A lot of the damage was self-inflicted by the Baltimore Ravens as turnovers and missed opportunities from a sputtering offense ultimately ruined their chances of advancing to the AFC title game and exacting a measure of revenge for the Colts' betrayal on March 29, 1984.

With quarterback Steve McNair throwing two interceptions in crucial situations, the offense losing four turnovers and being held to a pair of Matt Stover field goals, the Ravens absorbed a gut-wrenching 15-6 loss to the Colts in an AFC divisional playoff game Saturday before a record crowd of 71,162 at M&T Bank Stadium.

"It's an embarrassment to the team, to the city, to me personally," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "I'm pretty sure a lot of other people feel that way. I'm embarrassed, that's the bottom line.

"I thought this was going to be the team that could go back [to the Super Bowl], with the defense that we have, the special-teams play, the offense playing the way they have all year. I really thought we would be in Miami. To get knocked out in the first round, it speaks for itself."

Despite a stellar defensive effort against usually prolific Colts quarterback Peyton Manning with two interceptions from safety Ed Reed, kicker Adam Vinatieri connected on five field goals.

Even with the advantage of a first-round bye, the Ravens' resurgent season ended in bitter disappointment against a Colts franchise that won three NFL titles while in Baltimore.

"Nobody in this locker room is thinking about next year," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "Everybody's just hurt about the way it turned out and will probably be more hurt tomorrow. Hopefully, we can get our act together next year."

The Ravens' formerly anemic offense resurfaced as McNair finished 18 of 29 for only 173 yards and a dismal 49.9 quarterback rating.

"This is a bitter taste," McNair said. "You don't want this taste. You have to deal with this the whole offseason."

The second-seeded Ravens (13-4) were favored to win by four points, and linebacker Bart Scott boldly predicted days before kickoff that he would be pouring hot sauce all over Manning.

"I think there has to be some kind of accountability there," Manning said of the trash-talk. "There was a lot of talk, but if they win, they kind of say, ‘I told you so.' Where's the accountability?"

Instead, miscues from the Ravens' suddenly woeful offense doomed their cause as they lost in their first playoff appearance since 2003. Baltimore has only won one playoff game since winning Super Bowl XXXV during the 2000 season.

"I didn't imagine we would lose at all, let alone losing by field goals," Scott said. "It hurts a lot. Whenever you foster all your dreams, of course it's going to hurt. It's only going to be one team that's going to feel good at the end of the year."

After a week of emotional build-up from fans eager to send the Colts packing for the offseason, the Ravens' offense simply didn't live up to its end of the bargain.

"It's always very sudden," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I'm disappointed for the fans. This football team is as disappointed as our fans are, which is matched tenfold by the players.

"This team appreciates our fans, the energy that they had all this week. They were deserving of better than that, but it just wasn't going to happen."

There was perhaps no greater breakdown than McNair's late, forced pass intended for tight end Todd Heap in the second quarter with Baltimore trailing 6-3. On a 3rd-and-goal at the Colts' 4-yard line, McNair stared down Heap, who was briefly open, but the pass arrived late and safety Antoine Bethea swooped in to intercept the throw.

"The play is a play we knew would work," McNair said. "It's a squeeze play. Todd beat his man. Once he went to the left, I just reacted and I didn't see the guy on the backside. He made a hell of a play.

"That's something in the playoffs that you can't do regardless of if they make a great play or not. You can't turn the ball over that many times as they did in the playoffs and expect to win. They made all the right plays."

The Colts went on to score on a 51-yard Vinatieri field goal, his third of the game. This one almost seemed like an omen of the Colts' prospects. The kick hit the crossbar a few yards inside the right goal post, and bounced over for three points.

McNair's interception was extremely costly.

"You just can't do it," Billick said. "Obviously, very disappointing at that point in the game to not come away with the touchdown and change the temperament of the game and we didn't."

Despite Reed's turnovers, including one on a fourth-quarter throw meant for Marvin Harrison, the Ravens' offense never capitalized fully. Manning completed only 15 of 30 passes for 170 yards with a 39.6 quarterback rating, but accomplished the most important statistic: improving his career playoff record to 5-6.

"They didn't get in the end zone," McAlister said.

"How well did he read the defense? He threw a couple of interceptions. What do you think?"

The Ravens' chances were dashed again in the fourth quarter when another McNair interception interrupted a promising drive. Trailing 12-6, McNair threw behind rookie wide receiver Demetrius Williams on 3rd-and9 at the Colts' 39 and Colts cornerback Nick Harper intercepted.

"To end on a note shorter than Miami, it's very heart-breaking," McNair said. "Of course, I feel bad. The way I played, I feel bad, the way we played offensively, but there can only be one champion and unfortunately this isn't our year.

"The window of opportunity is closing and closing fast. I feel very confident about next year because of the experience we got."

McNair's final interception squandered Baltimore's last scoring opportunity as Indianapolis managed to run time off the clock and eventually capped their scoring with a game-sealing 35-yard field goal from Vinatieri with 26 seconds remaining to put the game away.

Vinatieri connected on field goals from 23, 42, 51, 48 and 35 yards with his fourth kick giving him an NFL record of 33 career postseason field goals.

McNair ended his first playoff game with the Ravens by losing a fumble to Colts defensive end Robert Mathis after being sacked for a 12-yard loss at the Baltimore 21-yard line.

The Colts, which ranked last in rushing defense during the regular season, held Jamal Lewis to 53 yards rushing for its second consecutive shutdown of a hard-nosed running back.

After Baltimore went three-and-out on their first possession, Manning engineered an 11-play drive that produced a field goal.

On the ensuing drive, Heap lost a fumble at the Ravens' 31 after being hit by Harper. Although officials initially ruled Heap down, they reversed the call after Colts coach Tony Dungy challenged the call. Vinatieri followed up with his second field goal for a 6-0 lead.

The Ravens cut that lead in half with a 40-yard field goal from Stover early in the second quarter.

Reed intercepted Manning and the Ravens marched to the Colts' 5 before Bethea picked off McNair's third-down throw at the 1.

The Ravens never got close again to scoring a touchdown, and converted 2 of 11 third downs. Baltimore generated only 244 yards.

Reed nearly intercepted a third Manning pass when his throw was heading right toward him, but middle linebacker Ray Lewis stuck out a hand to bat the ball down.

"It was obviously right to me," Reed said. "Ray didn't know I was right there. His instinct was to knock the ball down. I wouldn't tell him to play that any differently."

McAlister should have intercepted another Manning pass in the second quarter, but the ball bounced off his chest.

Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs made Colts rookie running back Joseph Addai fumble once, but Indianapolis recovered despite the presence of several Baltimore defenders in the vicinity of the loose football.

During the first half, Baltimore's possessions unfolded like this: punt, fumble, punt, field goal, interception, end of half. The second half began in similar fashion with a punt, field goal, interception and a punt.

And despite stonewalling the Colts for 261 yards of total offense, Lewis being credited with 10 solo tackles and five assists and a stingy red-zone defense, Baltimore came up short of its goal of getting to within one victory of reaching Super Bowl XLI in Miami, Fla.

The Ravens became the first home team to lose in this season's playoffs.

"It hurts bad, but only one team can win the championship this year and we're not defined on championships," safety Ed Reed said. "We had a great year. We bounced back after a 6-10 season. It wasn't our time.

"We have to take this in stride, learn from it, grow from it and come back next and find out if we can win a championship."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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