John Feinstein: For Ravens, This Season Comes Nevermore
Monday, January 19, 2009; 12:43 AM
PITTSBURGH, Jan. 18 -- The Baltimore Ravens walked down the hallway in the bowels of Heinz Field late Sunday night in complete silence, the kind that comes when you are in shock, when something you were convinced was yours turns out to belong to someone else. There were no tears, just glazed looks, each of them knowing there was nothing they could do except face with the aftermath of a crushing defeat.
Inside the locker room, while the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrated their 23-14 AFC championship game victory, Coach John Harbaugh told his team that this wasn't an ending, that there was no finality in the loss. He told them the team would build on all that had been accomplished in 2008.
All of that was true -- to a certain point.
"You only get one chance to play with THIS team," safety Jim Leonhard said softly, still in uniform while his teammates undressed. "Things change from year-to-year. You never know for certain that you're going to get this close again."
That's the hardest part, when a team has come this far, worked so hard and played so well. When you get within one step of the Super Bowl, it means you played a lot of good football and found ways to win games you weren't supposed to. When you are a team that no one thought could finish .500, much less win two playoff games, you become convinced at some point you are a team of destiny, that nothing can stop you from winning a title.
Four teams played on Sunday, each believing that. Only two will reach Tampa -- the Steelers and Arizona Cardinals -- and only one of them will be right, in believing their quest was fated to end in a championship.
In August, no one expected the Ravens to be in Pittsburgh on a frigid January night, playing the Steelers for a spot in Super Bowl XLIII (that's 43 for those scoring in English). But when Willis McGahee romped into the end zone with 9:29 left in the game, cutting a Steelers lead to two, there was every reason to believe the Ravens were going to pull out one more unlikely victory and head to Tampa.
"I think at that moment we were all convinced we were going to do it again," Leonhard said. "It felt like it was meant to be."
It didn't turn out that way. In fact, by the time the Steelers finished off a 23-14 victory, much of the joy from the Ravens' storybook season had melted away. Some glisten was lost in a frightening injury suffered by Willis McGahee late in the game, when he took a vicious hit from Steelers safety Ryan Clark and lay on the field motionless for 10 minutes.
The news that he had movement in his arms and legs after being carted away was a relief, but the chilling sight and the silence that came with it even cut into some of the Heinz Field celebrations. Those cheers were raucous only minutes earlier, when Troy Polamalu intercepted a Joe Flacco pass and returned it 40 yards, bounding into the end zone for a game- and conference-clinching touchdown with 4:24 left to play.
Until Polamalu's spectacular play -- leaping in front of Derrick Mason to corral the ball and then weaving his way to the end zone with Ed Reed-like panache -- the Ravens still had a chance to add one more unlikely victory to an unlikely season.