PITTSBURGH — — Players and coaches often say that one play — whether made or missed — does not define a team or determine an outcome.
What about two or three plays?
That's the thought that will likely trail the Ravens into the offseason after falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-24, in an AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field on Saturday evening.
From a holding penalty that wiped out Lardarius Webb's 55-yard punt return for a touchdown to Anquan Boldin's dropped catch in the end zone to T.J. Houshmandzadeh's fourth-down drop on the potential game-tying drive, the Ravens will be haunted by plays that could have changed the result and their destinations for next weekend.
"We just didn't," Boldin said of seizing opportunities. "In these situations, you can't miss opportunities, because they'll come back and bite you — like they did today."
The Ravens thought they had overcome a disastrous third quarter in which they coughed up 17 unanswered points when Webb weaved through the Steelers' coverage team and crossed the goal line with 5:55 left in the fourth quarter.
But wide receiver Marcus Smith was flagged for holding Pittsburgh's Will Allen, and the touchdown was removed from the scoreboard.
A morose Smith said he thought he didn't hold Allen.
"Honestly, I thought it was a legal block," Smith said, his voice brimming with emotion. "I got up inside him, knowing that I had my hands inside, knowing that I ran my feet, and for whatever reason, [the official] calls the whistle on me. It's never supposed to be you. You never want to be that guy no matter what — especially in this game, at this time."
Four plays later, the Ravens reached third-and-goal at Pittsburgh's 6-yard line when quarterback Joe Flacco hit Boldin on an out route in the end zone. But the ball bounced off Boldin's chest, and the offense had to settle for a 24-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff to tie the score at 24.
"It was just a low ball," Boldin said, not assessing blame to anyone. "Tried to go down and get it. Wasn't able to come up with it."
After the Steelers got a 2-yard touchdown plunge from running back Rashard Mendenhall with 1:33 left in the game, the Ravens still had a chance to tie the game by marching 48 yards to the end zone.
Two incompletions and a sack, however, pushed the offense back to the Ravens' 44. On fourth-and-18, Flacco fluttered a pass to Houshmandzadeh, who ran a hitch route along the right sideline that was long enough for the first down.
But Houshmandzadeh dropped the ball before cornerback William Gay hit him, and the game was essentially over.
After the game, Houshmandzadeh rose slowly from his stool and addressed the media with a stunned look on his face.
"I can't recall ever dropping a ball when the team needed a play," he said. "I've always made that play, I've always wanted that play, and wow, it's almost like it's not real. I can't believe it. I jumped up, and I was indecisive if I was going to catch it with my hands or try to body it, and it was too late."
A promising season ends for the Ravens, who never wavered in their belief that they could reach the Super Bowl. Coach John Harbaugh said he had no regrets about his team's accomplishments.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to play in a football game like this and be a part of this," he said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to coach a football team like this. I think our guys are grateful for the opportunity to be a part of these moments. All you can do in life is take a shot at being great. That's all you can do, and our guys did that."