By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
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.
They were a banged-up team coming in: cornerback Samari Rolle was inactive; fullback Le'Ron McClain played only a few snaps; Terrell Suggs needed a pain-killing shot in his shoulder to get on the field. All the receivers were hurting. The game began with backup safety Daren Stone knocked silly on the opening kickoff. Late in the first half, cornerback Corey Ivy was also knocked for a loop. It looked as if the Ravens might have to activate Bruce Laird, the former Colt turned TV-radio personality, to fill out the secondary in the second half.
None of that really mattered. No one wants to hear about injuries when you play in January. Everyone is hurt to one degree or another, and almost everyone who doesn't need some kind of surgery finds a way to play. As Ray Lewis likes to say, "that's football."
That's what this game was: down and dirty football -- dirty in the sense that every play was punctuated by one player hitting another very, very hard. "They play Steeler football, that's their way," said Ravens place-kicker Matt Stover, who has now been a part of 39 games against the Steelers. "Their way is to take you out in the back alley and have it. That's our way too. That's why this was the kind of game that it was.
"My hat's off to them. I thought we were the only team that could come in here and beat them and we didn't get it done. They beat us three times. All credit to them."
Before the locker room opened, Harbaugh told his players there would be no excuses and no complaining, that he wanted his players to give the Steelers their due. Quietly, some of the Ravens were furious about Clark's hit on McGahee and wondered about the work of the officiating crew, which clearly missed several calls both ways and seemed to caucus to discuss every flag that was thrown.
In the end, Harbaugh was right. Ben Roethlisberger was a fifth-year quarterback who could get out of trouble and make plays; Flacco was a rookie who did miraculous work to get this far, but wasn't quite ready for this game or this defense. When the game was truly on the line the Ravens made a critical mistake -- Stone committing a personal foul penalty on a Pittsburgh punt that moved the ball from the Ravens 40 to the Ravens 13 -- and then Polamalu made a memorable play to end any doubt about who was going to Tampa.
"Joe was trying to make a play," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Polamalu came a long way to get to the ball. He's a great player on a great defense. There's just not much more that you can say."
There wasn't much more to say. In a corner of the locker room, team owner Steve Bisciotti talked quietly to Harbaugh, thanking him for a remarkable first season, ending the conversation with a long hug. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who will undoubtedly be the head coach of the New York Jets very shortly, talked about how proud he was to have been with the Ravens for the last 10 years.
There was a lot of talk about the future, about coming back and doing this again next year, but veterans knew full well that the NFL holds no guarantees.
"When you get this close you have to take advantage," Mason said. "Losing makes you want to go to work for next year and try to climb the mountain again but that's what it is -- a mountain. Getting this far and losing hurts. Anyone who says different is fooling themselves."
Todd Heap, the tight end who played hurt nearly the entire season, shook his head and said softly, "The only thing that could hurt worse than this would be to make it to the Super Bowl and lose. This feels bad enough."
When you are winners, losing hurts even more. When you are the Detroit Lions, you become numb after awhile, the losses running together. But when you have won 10 of 12 games to get to this point, losing is sucker punch, the kind you never see coming.
"We established a lot of things this season," Stover said. "This isn't over. There's no finality in this."
There is no finality in sports. Win or lose there is always next year. But each year begins with a goal, and when that goal is so close, the pain lingers even when you know next year is never that far away.
As the Ravens took off their uniforms and hugged one another in a quiet locker room, the sense of loss -- not so much of defeat as a greater sense of loss -- was palpable.
The chance to play in this game and win may very well come next year. Or it may not. That's why Sunday night was so painful. For the Ravens, there is a lot to look forward to in the future, but this season is over.
In that sense, this finality was absolute.