Ravens stumble in 11 seconds of hell

BY foxsports • January 22, 2012

Joe Flacco should be a star quarterback now. The defense of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed should be in the Super Bowl, but they’re not going. Not now. Not in the future. This was the last chance for a legendary combo.

The New England Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 in the AFC Championship Game, and the talk will be about a missed field goal and the continued historic successes of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

Sure, those things happened. But the finish to this game was just so bizarre. It was 11 seconds of hell for the Ravens, 11 of the most mistake-packed seconds you could ever imagine in a moment like this.

Not just a missed field goal, but also a dropped pass in the end zone, a quarterback mistake, a coaching blunder.

“Today was Christmas, times 10,’’ New England linebacker Jerod Mayo said.

A gift. The truth is the Patriots weren’t even that great. Belichick and Brady will go to their fifth Super Bowl, a record for a coach/QB combo. But they didn’t earn this one. Not really. Belichick was tentative; Brady was mediocre.

We’re used to the Patriots getting help. From the Tuck Rule. From Spygate. From the fluke of lucking into Brady deep in the draft.

But this was a different kind of help. The Ravens just handed the Super Bowl over to the Patriots, and blew Lewis’ last chance to solidify his reputation as the league’s best defender.

Not that Lewis made any big plays. That stood out, too, signaling the beginning of his fall. It has to come sooner or later. Still, it seems wrong for his relevance to end this way. He needed one more Super Bowl.

“You know that Ray has poured his heart out, and he’s had a long career,’’ Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff said after missing a 32-yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime. “You don’t know how many years he has left, and to let him down is pretty tough.’’

Cundiff didn’t talk to Lewis afterward because “I don’t think they want to hear an apology.’’

Lewis described it as the “irony of sports’’ that 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 keep building.’’

This defense isn’t building. It is fighting off the collapse.

But it shut down Brady and the genius of Belichick with 1:56 left when Reed broke up a pass to force a punt. That stand should have defined this defense. Instead, it might be the last significant stop of the Lewis-Reed era.

What in the world just happened?

Well, let’s start with Flacco. He’s sort of a running joke in the NFL.

Even Reed said that Flacco had gotten rattled in the playoff win over Houston. So when he completed a 42-yard pass in the first quarter Sunday, underthrowing Torrey Smith by at least 10 yards, it just seemed laughable.

Who else could look that bad completing a 42-yard pass?

By the end of the game, though it was clear: Flacco had played better than Brady. He threw for more yards, more touchdowns and fewer interceptions. The QB rating is about as flawed and confusing as any stat in sport, but still, Flacco’s was way better than Brady’s.

This could have been his big moment. But with 3 1/2 minutes left in the game, the Ravens had third-and-3 on the New England 30. Flacco had earned the right to throw once to try to set up the win.

Instead, the coaching trust of John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron came up with a plunge up the middle for a 3-yard loss. The Patriots got the ball back, needing one more first down to finish off the game.

Instead, the Ravens defense made that last stand, and gave Flacco one more try. That’s when things really got weird.

The 11 seconds of hell. With 22 seconds left, Flacco threw what should have been a game-winning touchdown pass to Lee Evans, but New England’s Sterling Moore knocked the ball out of his hands.

“I saw him catch it,’’ Moore said, “It wasn’t in my mind to slap the ball out. It was a reaction.’’

“To be honest with you,’’ Evans said, “I felt I had it, but it came out. I don’t really know how to put it in words.’’

Here are some words: Evans should have held on. And Harbaugh said he couldn’t find an official to ask why they weren’t checking instant replay to see if Evans had scored before dropping it.

Next play: Flacco looked to throw, and had a wide open path to run for a first down. He could have done it, called timeout, then taken a shot or two at the endzone for the win. Instead, he threw incomplete.

And then? With the play clock running out, Harbaugh didn’t use his timeout, rushing Cundiff and the field-goal unit onto the field.

“That never occurred to me,’’ Harbaugh said. “I didn’t think that. Looking back at it, now, maybe there was something we could have done.’’

A timeout before a field goal in the final seconds of the championship game? That never occurred to him?

Well, you know what happened: Cundiff hooked his kick, and it was over.

“It’s a kick I’ve kicked a thousand times in my career,’’ he said. “I just went out there and didn’t convert.’’

Cundiff said he had a lesson to teach his two kids now by standing up, facing his failure and moving forward. He took comfort in Harbaugh telling him that he would be fine and “able to move on.’’

Yes. Maybe he will move on to Seattle or somewhere.

Be real. Cundiff isn’t coming back to the Ravens. Lewis and Reed might be back, but on a great defense that is ready to start dropping off.

Flacco goes back to being a joke.

History was changed. It was just handed over to the Patriots, who never seem to get enough.