FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Two plays separated the Baltimore Ravens from reaching the Super Bowl. But it was those two plays that secured the Ravens' place in the NFL history of heartbreak.
Billy Cundiff's missed field goal and Lee Evans' drop in the end zone will long be remembered among the biggest flops ever in the playoffs. Cundiff is the new Scott Norwood, and Evans is the new Jackie Smith.
Teams can often pour their pain into one play. What makes the Ravens different is they received a double dose of bitterness and agony. While the Ravens players and coaches put on a composed face to reporters, a source said helmets were thrown in the locker room and then it became silent as everyone reflected on what might have been.
Cundiff should have made a 32-yard field goal. Evans should have made the catch in the end zone. Baltimore should have gone to Indianapolis. The scoreboard -- Patriots 23, Ravens 20 -- said otherwise.
That's why this is the most devastating loss in the Ravens' 273-game existence. Nothing comes close. There have been other crushing blows, but the Ravens have never had a ticket to the Super Bowl taken away from them twice in the final 22 seconds of a game.
The Ravens did everything on their checklist to win the game. Joe Flacco threw for 306 yards -- 67 more than Tom Brady. The defense held the Patriots to 23 points and held Brady without a passing touchdown. The team forced three turnovers and dominated time of possession (33:33 to 26:27).
It didn't matter because of two plays. The Ravens blinked when the game was on the line. They flinched when the pressure had reached its peak.
The Ravens' previous incarnation, the Browns, endured The Drive and The Fumble. The Ravens now have The Drop and The Kick.
Cundiff has gone from the top of his profession, a Pro Bowl kicker in 2010, to enduring the position's worst nightmare. By hooking that kick wide left, he joins the likes of Norwood, who will forever be remembered for missing a 47-yard field goal at the end of the game that cost the Buffalo Bills a Super Bowl XXV victory against the Giants.
"It's a kick I've kicked a thousand times in my career," a solemn Cundiff said. "I just went out there and didn't convert. That's the way things go. There's really no excuse for it."
The Ravens might have been able to avoid that miss. Cundiff was rushing out onto the field and barely got set up in time.
The snap and hold looked good, but Cundiff pulled it wide. If the Ravens had taken a timeout, Cundiff would have had more time to set up and might have made that kick.
Asked if he thought about using a timeout in that situation, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, "That never occurred to me. I didn't think that. You know, looking back at it now, maybe there was something we could have done. But in the situation, it didn't seem like we were that rushed on the field. [I] thought we were in pretty good shape."
Baltimore punter Sam Koch, who is also the holder, acknowledged "we might have been" rushed.
"But it's something that we've practiced," Koch said. "I thought there was plenty of time for him to get set up and do his thing. I'm not sure how rushed he really felt."
You could argue that Cundiff should've never been put in that situation. Two plays before that kick, Evans had a 14-yard touchdown pass in his hands -- for a second. Undrafted rookie Sterling Moore slapped the ball away from Evans in the end zone when it looked like he seemed to relax. It didn't look like he had possession of the ball when his second foot landed.
Evans finds himself lumped in history withCowboys tight end Jackie Smith, who dropped a pass in the end zone after being wide open in the end zone in Super Bowl XIII against the Steelers.
“Honestly, the most disappointing part of all this ... that I feel personally that I let everybody down," said Evans, whose began to brim with emotion. "This is the greatest team that I’ve been on, and I feel like I let everybody down. Yeah, it’s on my shoulders. I think Ray (Lewis) gave a good message coming in here. It’s hard to sit here and accept how and why things happened, but it’s the reality of it. It’s as tough as it gets.”
Flacco thought Evans had caught the ball and the Ravens had taken a 27-23 lead with 22 seconds remaining. He threw his hands up in the air and started running toward the end zone until he saw the referee signal incomplete.
"If you weren't celebrating, you weren't a Ravens fan," linebacker Ray Lewis said.
He understands the toll a loss like this can take on a franchise.
"This team, this group, this organization is a pretty mentally tough group," Birk said.
The Ravens had been building to this moment. Baltimore swept the AFC North. The Ravens went undefeated at home. They earned a first-round bye and a home playoff game.
It looked like this was the Ravens' time when Flacco marched them down 65 yards in 82 seconds. But then came The Drop and The Kick.
"When it's your job ... and get paid to make field goals, I think you have to take it personally," Cundiff said. "First and foremost is to stand up and face the music and move on."
The pressure will be ratcheted up even more on the Ravens next season to make the Super Bowl. The window of opportunity is closing for defensive stars Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
But the Ravens must prove they can handle the pressure better than they did in this AFC Championship Game.
"We have to keep moving and keep building and remember this taste no matter how many times you go through it," Lewis said. "Because when you finally get it, you appreciate it more."