When the emotional fog clears and we can all look back dispassionately on this NFL season, it should become fairly obvious why the Ravens are not going to be playing the New York Jets in the AFC championship game Sunday in Baltimore.
They just couldn't handle success.
How else do you explain the way they fought through adversity time after time this year to join the Pittsburgh Steelers with the second-best record in the AFC, but often were at their worst when things looked the best?
Case in point: They took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots early in the season and ended up on their heels at crunch time, eventually losing the game deep in overtime.
Case in point: The following week, they appeared to have the hapless Buffalo Bills all wrapped up before letting go of another 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, but held on to win in overtime.
Case in point: Well, this is going to get bulky, so let's just say the same kind of thing happened against the Houston Texans and then there were the galling come-from-ahead losses in the regular season to the Steelers and Falcons.
Which brings us back to Saturday's meltdown, which made everything that came before it seem like so much happy nostalgia. The tough regular-season losses to three of the top teams in the NFL had only reinforced the notion that the Ravens could play with anybody at any time in any stadium, and the Ravens certainly proved that by beating up Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers for the first 30 minutes of their playoff showdown.
They didn't wow anybody with their offensive production, but the defense was fierce and the Steelers showed a little bit of rust after their long layoff. In any other Ravens playoff run, a 14-point lead at halftime would have seemed pretty safe, but not this year.
Nobody could take anything for granted at halftime, since the Steelers were set to get the ball to start the second half with a chance to bring it back to a one-score situation, but you had to be feeling pretty good when the Ravens stopped them again. Then all hell broke loose.
Who knows why fate frowns at certain times, but it made a very ugly face at the Ravens at that point. Ray Rice hadn't fumbled all year, but he exposed the ball and the turnaround began. Joe Flacco, who is known for his cool demeanor under pressure, suddenly looked like a guy desperately trying to make up a big deficit instead of a guy trying to protect a lead. You saw what happened.
It would be easy to throw this all on Flacco for making two turnovers on consecutive possessions, but it wouldn't be fair. Just about everybody the Ravens depend on to make an offensive play failed — at some point — to make the kind of play that good playoff teams make. And you can't just look at this game in a vacuum
The Ravens have been doing this kind of thing, in one form or another, throughout this strange (and sometimes wonderful) season. It hasn't been a failure of the offense, though the offense certainly seemed to play well below the potential ascribed to it after the arrival of quality receivers Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth. There were defensive breakdowns, too, though the defense certainly carried the team to the threshold of what would have been a huge and potentially historic victory on Saturday.
There really is no one thing that stands out as the reason the Ravens had trouble throughout the season putting together a complete three-phase performance. The offensive talent was there and the defense was at its best at the end of the season, so it's fair to wonder whether the soul-searching should start with the coaching staff.
The offensive gameplan seemed incoherent from game to game as coordinator Cam Cameron tried to mold the attack to fit each opponent. The Ravens came into the season with the promise of a greater downfield passing game, but fans came away wondering just why the team bothered to bring in the speedy Stallworth if he was just around for the occasional trick play.
The Ravens were generally solid on the other side of the ball, but there were pivotal moments when defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's approach seemed too passive for a team with a historical reputation for take-no-prisoners defense.
If it seems overly critical to pick apart a season in which the Ravens won 13 times and were one good half away from the AFC title game, maybe it is. But the Ravens were on the verge of something truly special and they came up short in a way that left anyone with a Ray Lewis jersey and a pulse searching for some meaning.
Let's keep it simple. They just couldn't handle success.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.