FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It had everything.
Joe Flacco given chance after chance to redeem himself, finally leading his team downfield for a tying or go-ahead score in the final two minutes.
A maligned New England defense showing it can stop someone; a maligned Baltimore offense, about to close the deal in the crucible of the AFC championship game.
Unsung heroes, lead changes and an inexplicable, wild finish — a 32-yard field goal to send it into overtime — a “kick I’ve kicked 1,000 times,” said Ravens place kicker Billy Cundiff.
“I just had someone tell me that’s the first kick I’ve missed in the fourth quarter all season,” he said, swallowing. The stat was used to bolster his late-game credentials, but somehow it made the miss that killed Baltimore even worse.
The game that had everything left the Ravens with nothing.
Gillette Stadium goes berserk. The Ravens go home — for good.
The misfire that handed the New England Patriots their fifth trip to the Super Bowl in 11 seasons with 11 seconds left Sunday, Cundiff said, would at least teach his young children about adversity. He’s right.
He spoke of Coach John Harbaugh telling him he still believed in him, how he never felt prouder about the Ravens organization than at the worst moment of his NFL career. That, too, was a heartfelt, genuine sentiment.
But all I really heard perfectly was Cundiff’s remorse about letting his teammates down, about Lewis. “You know Ray has poured his heart out, and he’s had a long career, and you don’t know how many years he has left, and to let him down is pretty tough.”
That’s it. It’s over.
Oh, Lewis has another two years on his contract. But Ed Reed is 33 years old. Flacco still has this bizarre identity crisis, worried he will never get the adulation and acceptance he says he’s not worried about receiving but keeps on talking about it as if it’s more important than any Lombardi Trophy he hopes to one day raise.
The Ravens may be good for several more years, but this was their last opportunity to be great in the Ray Lewis era — and they couldn’t do it on a day they had everything going for them.
Flacco outperformed Brady, who tied Joe Montana for the most postseason victories in NFL history and surpassed John Elway for No. 4 on the postseason yardage list.
In fact, in one of those fine-line-in-sports moments, Flacco was a millisecond from hitting Lee Evans for the game-winning touchdown. If he does, and the Ravens hang on in the final 30 seconds, the perception of Flacco changes overnight. He goes from a guy who played well enough not to throw the game away to the quarterback who ran a two-minute drill like the best in the business en route to taking his team to the Super Bowl.
But Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore made the defensive play of the game, swatting the ball away after Evans all but had it in his grasp for six points that would have won the game.
Two plays later, Harbaugh sent his reliable kicker onto the field to tie the game and force overtime, sent him out there to be part of the game that had everything.
Fifteen seconds remained. The snap was perfect. The hold was good. The kick was . . . wide left.
Dies the season, dies an era in Baltimore — the Ray Lewis era.
Eleven years after he was named the Super Bowl MVP and Charm City threw the Ravens a parade, Lewis wasn’t going anywhere but home — to train for next season.
“Is this my last time as a Raven?” he said, rhetorically. “Absolutely not. Let me answer that question before somebody asks me that question.
“I’ve been in this business too long for this to be the toughest loss ever,” Lewis added. “Is it a tough loss? Absolutely.
“That’s the irony of sports — there is a winner and a loser and when you lose, you have to suck it up like a man and as a man you’ve got to keep moving. We’ve got to keep moving and building and remember this taste no manner how many times you go through it — because when you finally get to it — you will appreciate it more.”
But this had to hurt more than so many others — to be so close, especially after Evans appeared to score. And then Cundiff’s crushing miss.
“To be honest, I don’t think they want to hear an apology,” Cundiff said when asked if he had spoken to Lewis or any of his teammates afterward. “They laid it all out there. I laid it all out there. And it just wasn’t good enough.”
His voice was unsteady at times, but Cundiff faced the music with his head up.
The Ravens won the turnover battle. They won the time-of-possession battle. They kept the Patriots’ hurry-up offense from hurrying up and burying them with touchdowns.
Lewis turned back the clock, making monster hits, putting his right arm out to thwart a goal-line rush by New England, turning his forearm and bicep into a meat hook that pushed the Patriots back.
And all that was needed to send it into an extra period was a kick the field-goal kicker said he’d made 1,000 times. Snap. Hold. Kick.
Wide left? Wide left.
“As a man, no one play won or lost this game,” Lewis said. “Could you have put us in a position to keep playing? Absolutely. But one play didn’t win or lose the game. There is no one man who ever lost a game. Don’t you ever drop your head. We win as a team, we lose as a team.
“There is no, ‘Billy is the fault, Billy missed the kick.’ It happens, move on, move on, as a man, because life doesn’t stop.”
That’s as comforting as it might get for Billy Cundiff on Sunday, the day he missed the kick that may have ended an era — no matter how much Ray Lewis believes otherwise.