Browns 14, Ravens 13
"Too easy," linebacker Peter Boulware kept muttering as he walked through the tunnel that led to the Baltimore Ravens' clubhouse after as dispiriting a loss as the team has suffered. "Too easy. Too easy."
Boulware was referring to the Cleveland Browns driving 92 yards -- 14 of them on a personal foul by cornerback Chris McAlister -- with no timeouts for a touchdown with 29 seconds left. That lifted them to a 14-13 victory today and left the Ravens hanging to one thread to make the playoffs.
Baltimore remained mathematically alive -- albeit barely -- for the postseason when the New York Jets beat New England tonight, 30-17.
"What these guys have to realize is that this is what a playoff loss feels like," Ravens Coach Brian Billick said.
Billick was referring to what the Ravens (7-8) seemed to have in hand until that final drive led by quarterback Tim Couch, a chance at the AFC North Division championship with a victory today and a loss Monday night by the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That would have set up next Sunday's Ravens-Steelers game for the title.
Instead, the three-year-old expansion team in the town Ravens owner Art Modell abandoned seven seasons ago dashed those hopes. The Browns (8-7) only scored on their first and last possessions of the game, charging 82 yards immediately after the opening kickoff.
Cleveland's two touchdowns were short, a three-yard plunge by backup running back Jamel White on the first and a one-yard pass from Couch to tight end Mark Campbell on the second.
In between, the Ravens played quite well, gaining a 13-7 lead with five-plus minutes left in the third quarter on the second of Matt Stover's field goals after wide receiver Travis Taylor had caught a 17-yard pass from Jeff Blake about seven minutes before halftime.
With seven minutes left in the game, the Ravens seemed about to put the game out of reach by plowing downfield behind tailback Jamal Lewis and some short passes by Blake. But the wind was too stiff for Billick to consider what would have been about a 52-yarder by Stover on fourth and two from the Cleveland 35.
And Dave Zastudil's punt stopped at the Cleveland 8 with 2 minutes 18 seconds left.
The Ravens frequently had denied teams the winning score in such situations, including a 21-16 victory in Cleveland earlier this season when rookie safety Ed Reed intercepted a pass on the goal line on the last play.
Billick summed up Cleveland's chances in such a dilemma: "You knew it had to have to be some big breakout play."
That play came on second and 10 from the Cleveland 45, after Couch had completed three passes for 37 yards. It was a dump over the middle to White -- and it seemed to favor the Ravens because the clock would keep ticking if they quickly made the tackle.
But White cut to the outside and ran 28 yards down the right sideline before being taken out of bounds at the Baltimore 27. Then McAlister pushed White unnecessarily and the Browns had first down at the 13. McAlister declined to comment, brushing past reporters.
Billick said there was no way to know if the Ravens would have kept the Browns out of the end zone had McAlister kept his composure, but admitted: "You've got to be smart. It was unfortunate to do that at that time."
Couch quickly whipped a 12-yard pass to wide receiver Kevin Johnson to the 1 and his game-winning pass was two plays later, when a fake to running back William Green freed Campbell a few yards into the end zone.
Later, Blake's desperation pass was intercepted with 18 seconds left.
"We've been in [that] situation all year long and come out on top quite a few times," said Couch. One of them was a 50-yard touchdown pass Couch threw to wide receiver Quincy Morgan on the last play of a 21-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars two weeks ago.
All the scoring drives were long and time consuming, with the Browns using more than half of the first quarter in taking a 7-0 lead and the Ravens countering with two reverses to Taylor helping set up a Stover 31-yard field goal.
The Blake-to-Taylor touchdown pass midway through the second quarter that gave Baltimore a 10-7 lead capped an 84-yard surge that featured a nice blend of Lewis runs and short passes. Taylor caught the touchdown pass on his knees at about the 7, got up and covered the few steps to stretch the ball over the goal line before a Brown could touch him.
Couch was joyous because he'd been booed at home after being injured and replaced late in the Ravens' victory in October.
"This was his 10th come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter," Coach Butch Davis said. "He was horribly crucified in the first Baltimore game.
"And to come back today and go 92 yards with no timeouts and score the game-winning touchdown, he deserves an awful lot of credit."