Ravens defy the odds in turning near playoff certainty into 'a bad dream'

BALTIMORE -- Safety Tony Jefferson was on the brink of tears. Linebacker Terrell Suggs displayed a look of devastation. Others walked out of the locker room quietly, as if they were still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

Sunday's 31-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals did more than knock out the Baltimore Ravens from the playoff race and forge itself as the most devastating regular-season loss in team history. This last-minute defeat nearly defied comprehension.

Allowing a 49-yard touchdown to a wide receiver named Tyler Boyd (who isn't Antonio Brown) on fourth-and-12 with under a minute remaining was almost unimaginable. It was on Baltimore's home field with everything on the line. It was against the NFL's worst-ranked offense.

Before the winning score, the Ravens had a 93.4 percent chance of winning. Over the past decade, teams had converted only 18.2 percent of the time on fourth downs of 12 yards or longer (75-of-412).

All the Ravens (9-7) had to do was stop the downtrodden Bengals (7-9) on one last play and they were headed to Kansas City for a wild-card playoff game. Instead, Baltimore is out of the postseason for a third straight year, which hasn't happened to this franchise since the Ravens missed the playoffs in their first four years of existence (1996-1999).

"We went from having all our dreams come true to them going away in a matter of seconds," Suggs said. "It is like a bad dream. It is like you can't believe it is happening to us like this."

This is the second straight year that the Ravens were eliminated from the postseason because they were unable to keep an offense out of the end zone in the final minute. But this wasn't the same as getting beat by Ben Roethlisberger and Brown in Pittsburgh last year. A defense can chalk up allowing a late collapse to a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and the game's most prolific wide receiver.

In Sunday's regular-season finale -- the coldest home game in Ravens history at 19 degrees -- Baltimore somehow couldn't stop Boyd, Andy Dalton and a struggling Bengals team with no motivation other than to play spoiler. Dalton had only one previous touchdown in the final minute of regulation in his seven-year career. Boyd had never caught a pass over 30 yards.

This is why the Ravens were left scratching their heads for a finish that will go down in team history for all the wrong reasons.

"Yes, 15 years as a Raven, I would say this one is the most devastating [loss in the regular season]," Suggs said. "I will remember this one forever."

If defensive coordinator Dean Pees is retiring (which ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Sunday), it was a rough final game.

Late in the fourth quarter, it appeared as if the Bengals' drive was stalling. Dalton had thrown two incompletions and then hit tight end Tyler Kroft for a 3-yard gain on third down.

On fourth-and-12, the Ravens decided to switch from man-to-man coverage to a Cover-2 (their two-deep alignment) and paid the price for it.

"We were debating on the call," said safety Eric Weddle, who missed out on a $1 million bonus because Baltimore failed to qualify for the postseason. "We wanted to give them a different look. We didn't play it correctly. The safety to that side drops; they made a play."

Lining up in the slot, Boyd found himself wide open at the Ravens' 25-yard line (no Ravens defender was within five yards of him). After making the catch, Boyd outraced Weddle, Maurice Canady and Brandon Carr to the end zone.

This was the Ravens' first touchdown allowed to a wide receiver in seven games, dating back to Nov. 5 in Tennessee.

"It was a simple coverage," linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "He just threw the ball to the right spot."

Baltimore is one of the best when it comes to closing out teams. The Ravens just have bad timing when they fail to do so.

Over the past 25 weeks, Baltimore has only allowed winning touchdowns in the final minute twice. Each time, it bounced the Ravens from the playoff race -- Christmas night in Pittsburgh last season and the fourth-down debacle to Cincinnati on Sunday night.

"We talked about finishing all year. We didn’t finish [Sunday]," an emotional Jefferson said. "They made a play, but like I said, that's football. I will look at the tape and see maybe what we could have done better. I've never loved a team like I've loved this one. So this one stings a little bit for me."

The Ravens entered Sunday with a projected 97 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. Baltimore had to win or either the Buffalo Bills or Tennessee Titans had to lose.

As the Ravens' game began to wind down, everything fell apart. First, the Bills won. Then, the Titans won.

That meant the Ravens had to hold onto a three-point lead in the final nine minutes of the fourth quarter to earn a wild-card berth. But Baltimore failed to do so, delivering the biggest shock of the final week of the 2017 season.

"I have never enjoyed coaching a team more, as a head coach or an assistant," coach John Harbaugh said. "I've never had a bunch of guys that didn't turn from adversity like these guys. I'm hurt, because I wanted this team in the playoffs. I wanted this team in the playoffs for the team -- the players -- because of what they have done this year [and how far] they've come.

Harbaugh added, "Even the game, I think, epitomizes, a little bit, how the season went. To battle our way back the way we did and then not finish the game, is about as tough as it can be. But, that doesn't detract from the heart and for who these guys are as people. So that's what I'm standing on. That's what I told them. And it has been a joy coaching these guys every day."