The Baltimore Ravens’ 2011 championship campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion last Sunday as Billy Cundiff’s 32 yard would be tying field goal sailed wide left with just 11 seconds to play against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, MA.   The missed try came just two plays after QB Joe Flacco threaded a near impossible laser to the front corner of the end zone that WR Lee Evans held for a moment, only to let slip away when cornerback Sterling Moore stripped Evans before he could gain complete control of the pass.  Had Evans secured the catch, Baltimore in all likelihood would have escaped with a 27-23 victory and a chance to play in the Super Bowl in Indianapolis against the New York Giants.  Instead, they fell 23-20 at the hands of Tom Brady and the Patriots, a loss catapulting Ravens’ fans into a hellish offseason to be spent fighting off recurring nightmares of both Evans’ near heroism, and Cundiff’s inexplicable job description folly.

Flacco turned in his best performance as a pro in the game that mattered most, finishing 22-36 with 306 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.  Time and again over the course of the afternoon, he converted third downs, placed high speed passes where only Ravens’ pass catchers could make plays, eluded the rush with his feet, and displayed stoic field general leadership and confidence that effectively muzzles the uncalled for national media criticism hurled at him all week that he was incapable of out-dueling Tom Brady on the road. (or even playing in the NFL if you listened to some of the arrogant, uninformed lazy blowhards)

Flacco’s superb game in the face of extreme criticism, only to result in the Ravens’ elimination from the postseason, is the real rug out from underneath the city and the team’s fanbase.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that Baltimore’s poor performances on the road in the team’s four losses became their ultimate demise.  If they had managed just one more win, with Seattle and Jacksonville being the real kick yourself losses, the team would have finished the regular season with at least 13 wins and New England would have had to travel to Baltimore for the AFC championship, where the Ravens’ finished 9-0, and have looked nearly unbeatable.  Aside from a 5 minute stretch against Arizona, a near comeback by the Bengals, and the Texans’ hanging tight in the playoff divisional round, no team was able to challenge the Ravens in Baltimore all year.

The playoff loss also brings immediacy to the question of return or retirement for star Ravens and future first ballot hall of famers, LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed.  Lewis has indicated that he will return for his gravity-defying 17thyear, and odds would seem to point to Reed also returning, as his pass breakup on 3rddown against New England in the 4thquarter gave the Ravens their last shot, while his thirst for a championship was ultimately quenched by sand as Cundiff’s chip shot errantly ran off course.

For Coach Harbaugh, the front office and coaching staff, it’s now right back to punching the clock and gearing the organization up for a 2012 ‘The World is Ours’ tour.  There will be the usual personnel shake-ups and possibly a coaching move or two (Cameron?), but the core of this team will remain intact and was not left with rosy feelings leaving New England, which will likely result in more pain for next year’s aging Steelers, the not-yet Bengals, and basement Browns, as the Ravens’ steady their crosshairs on another AFC North division title and run at the Lombardi trophy.  
Meanwhile, in the meditative darkness a free safety ponders the run of time…

Leaning back, relaxed calmly resting a chair reclined pipe lighting softly the harsh night enveloping a distance, yes he’s watched the seasons slide on by, one in front of another and behind the next dawning cry, in sequence they told him, but he doesn’t think so, his vision speed hands  allow side by side alignment, the ability to pierce the veil of reflection pulling back the curtain to see everything at once, and he knows the mornings, and he knows the heat, and he knows the preparation, he has tasted cold defeat, he’s risen with the lions painted the sand in his own blood, went to war on an Aztec mountain, thrashed through the beating of the sun, sounded from the hilltop drowning, the drum of war, the seat of peace, now resting off his feet.

Ed Reed has been the greatest football player I have ever watched play and I hope that he does what he wants to next year… but one more run at this thing, with a veteran core, and QB entering his prime sure would be a blast.  Thank you to the 2011 Baltimore Ravens for making our city proud!