A Ravens season that started with Super Bowl dreams ended in disappointment yesterday, but not without a final, dramatic turn.
The Ravens beat the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium to finish with a 9-7 record and keep alive their long-shot hopes of securing a wild card pass into the American Football Conference playoffs.
Needing two later games to break their way, they sat back to watch along with many of the city's football fans. Hopes soared when the right teams took early leads, but despair set in when the Denver Broncos rallied to crush the Indianapolis Colts, lock up the wild-card berth and eliminate the Ravens.
The feel-good vibes generated by yesterday's 30-23 victory over the Dolphins don't figure to comfort the Ravens for long, as the organization now faces an off-season of decision-making and soul-searching.
How could a team that had proclaimed itself a Super Bowl contender not make the playoffs? And what is the organization going to do to correct the shortcomings it identifies?
Those questions will dominate football talk in Baltimore until the 2005 season begins.
"It's a bit of a shocker," Ravens defensive end Tony Weaver said yesterday about the 9-7 record. "But our road wasn't easy. We played [and lost to playoff] teams like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New England and Indianapolis, all on the road. That was tough."
The Ravens finished over .500 for the fourth time in five years, but they have the feel of a team approaching a crossroads.
It could be that their days of counting on the defense to carry the offense are over.
Their defense played well again this season, but the unit yielded in several key situations, leading to costly losses. The offense again was among the NFL's worst.
The obvious conclusion is that it's time for the offense to carry a larger share of the load.
The continuation of chronic problems has led to speculation that offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh is about to lose his job. Ravens head coach Brian Billick ended his postgame news conference yesterday when asked about the future of his coaching staff.
"If [Cavanaugh] isn't here, I'm going to miss him," said quarterback Kyle Boller, who has also endured criticism.
The organization could also lose Phil Savage, its highly regarded director of player personnel, who might be offered the chance to run another team.
Other looming issues include All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis' contract, which needs to be restructured, and the fates of seven veterans who are unrestricted free agents: cornerback Gary Baxter, linebacker Ed Hartwell, receiver Travis Taylor, center/guard Casey Rabach, guard Bennie Anderson, defensive end Marques Douglas and fullback Alan Ricard.
Meanwhile, star runner Jamal Lewis will spend part of the off-season in jail after pleading guilty to drug conspiracy charges during the season.
The need to make changes wasn't on anyone's agenda when the season began four months ago. The Ravens were a consensus selection to repeat as champions of the AFC North division.
A 20-3 loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns in the season opener offered early signs that the team might not be as formidable as expected. But all seemed well again when the Ravens rebounded with a convincing victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers the next week.
Late in that game, the Ravens knocked out Tommy Maddox, the Steelers' starting quarterback, who was replaced by rookie Ben Roethlisberger. Improbably, the injury changed the Steelers for the better. Roethlisberger emerged as a star, and the Steelers won their remaining 14 games. They're the top seed in the AFC playoffs, which begin Saturday.
As the Steelers soared, the Ravens slowly came to the realization that they weren't going to repeat as division champs. A Monday night home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs was a blow, as was a galling 5-point defeat in Philadelphia. But the Ravens still carried a 7-3 record and likely playoff hopes into the stretch run of the season.
"We had our ups, and we had our downs," safety Ed Reed said yesterday.
Four losses in the next five games dealt them what was very nearly a knockout blow.
They still clung to faint hopes yesterday, needing the outcomes of four games, including their own, to break the right way. Cornerback Chris McAlister likened the situation to playing the lottery for the chance to reach the playoffs.
The Ravens did their part by beating the Dolphins, and the Steelers also came through with a victory over the Buffalo Bills.
The Ravens' season came down to two games played later yesterday - the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis at Denver.
"We're still alive and counting. It's time for a little Chinese food and a little game-watching," Billick said.
Neither game went the Ravens' way, as their fellow playoff contenders, the Broncos and Jaguars, won. The Ravens' hopes were officially extinguished when Denver completed its 33-14 victory about three hours after the Baltimore game.
The Colts, who had already made the playoffs, played most of the game without All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning, who was pulled to avoid injury.
None of the Ravens players was available for comment after the late games.
"We had a good season, a fun season. Things didn't always go our way, but we finished over .500," defensive back Will Demps said earlier.
Finishing over .500 will satisfy few in a city that expected a fourth trip to the playoffs in five years and didn't get it.
Expectations for an off-season of steady change are more likely to be realized.