In less than a 30-minute span, the Ravens were happy, disappointed and hopeful as they discussed their past, present and future.
Shortly after a 22-0 win yesterday against the Cincinnati Bengals in the team's first-ever shutout, the Ravens displayed the full gamut of emotions of the bittersweet victory before an announced crowd of 68,036 at PSINet Stadium.
As the team gathered in the locker room for a post-game meeting, coach Brian Billick informed the Ravens they had been eliminated from playoff contention by virtue of the Buffalo Bills' 13-10 overtime win over the New England Patriots.
Despite having won four straight games and five of their past six, the Ravens (8-7) could find little immediate consolation except for trying to set a tone for next season.
"To possibly have a winning record, to play well, to come off the field excited and then to find out you're out of the playoffs, that dampens the mood a little bit," said Ravens right defensive end Michael McCrary, who had three sacks. "It's frustrating to lose as many games by three points four as we did earlier in the season and then play this well and not get in. But we turned it around in the middle of the season. We have taken the right steps. We're moving in the right direction."
Ravens safety Rod Woodson said: "I'm glad we won, but I'm not really excited. That's because our dream is not there anymore."
The Ravens, though, did overcome a nightmare yesterday. Only five weeks ago, the Bengals (4-11) rolled up 348 yards of total offense in a 34-31 Ravens victory won on Matt Stover's 50-yard field goal as time expired in regulation. The Bengals had also averaged 36.5 points during the previous four games, and their skilled position cast of receivers Darnay Scott, Carl Pickens, running back Corey Dillon and quarterback Jeff Blake had given the Ravens a lot of trouble during the past three years.
But yesterday, Blake threw for only 187 yards and was intercepted twice. Scott and Pickens combined for nine catches for 121 yards, but were no threats. Dillon left the game with a sprained knee with 8: 04 left in the third quarter after gaining 27 yards on 10 carries.
What was the difference?
The Ravens' defensive front seven of tackles Tony Siragusa, Larry Webster, ends Rob Burnett, McCrary and linebackers Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper, Peter Boulware and Cornell Brown, who alternates with Boulware, dominated the Bengals and sacked Blake seven times.
Combined with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Tony Banks to running back Errict Rhett in the first quarter and field goals of 24, 48, 19, 30 and 19 yards from Stover (three in the second quarter), the Ravens easily handled the Bengals to at least achieve their first non-losing season in team history.
"I just had to tell the players with Buffalo winning it puts us out of the playoff picture," said Billick. "Like I told them and I believe in my heart, it doesn't matter, it really doesn't matter. The fact that we don't get there, it's a moot point, it really is, because they stepped up to the challenge. That's going to pay dividends down the line. That group in there is a heck of a group of guys.
"Getting a goose egg in the NFL, that's hard to do. There aren't a lot of them, and this defense deserves that, particularly against the caliber offense that Cincinnati is. They've got to feel good about that."
The Ravens are a gap control team. Siragusa and Webster take on the interior blockers, leaving Sharper and Lewis to make all the tackles. Lewis had nine tackles, and Sharper had six. The Ravens also have two relentless ends in McCrary and Burnett. McCrary tortured left offensive tackle Rod Jones, while Burnett toyed with both right tackle Willie Anderson and Jamain Stephens.
"Defensively, we were nervous all week about Cincy," said Burnett. "No one had moved the ball on us like they did. They have some weapons. We came out fired up and expected a tough battle. There is still a lot of room for improvement, a few more steps we can take. We have to move on to the next level."
The Bengals had only two substantial drives in the game. The first one ended at the Ravens' 4 with 3: 36 left in the half, when cornerback Duane Starks stepped in front of Pickens and intercepted a Blake pass, which he returned to the Ravens' 13.
The second drive started midway in the third quarter at the Bengals' 4 and involved 20 plays, six third-down conversions and two goal-line stands. It ended nearly 9: 30 later, with Keith Washington blocking a 20-yard field-goal attempt by Doug Pelfrey with 13: 20 left in the game.
"We were trying to buckle down and kind of caught our wind at the change of the quarter," said Webster. "We weren't thinking about the shutout. That all takes care of itself. We were just trying to stop the slide."
The Ravens defense and Stover's field goals are good cloaking devices for an offense that has played poorly the past two weeks. The Ravens hardly have a playoff-caliber offense. Banks had an average performance for the second straight game, completing 15 of 33 passes for 187 yards, and his lone interception, thrown behind receiver Qadry Ismail, killed a Ravens' drive at the Bengals' 9 with 1: 55 left in the half.
The Ravens failed to take advantage of great field position in the first half, starting possessions on the Bengals' 44, 47, 47, 48 and 15. The Ravens were able to build only a 16-0 lead at the half. The most disappointing series ended with the Ravens failing to score a touchdown from the Bengals' 1 on three plays with 34 seconds left in the half. It was Stover to the rescue again, converting a 19-yarder.
"We couldn't quite finish it," Ravens left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said of the stalled drives. "They didn't do anything differently; we couldn't just force it in there. This year, we had to come in and learn the offense. Next year, we'll come in and have a better grasp of it."
The Ravens will continue to have the same problems until they make certain upgrades in the off-season. They have to become more consistent at quarterback and find a go-to receiver inside the opposition's 20. Billick also made some questionable decisions, throwing end-zone passes to tight end Greg DeLong, who has seldom held on to passes over 5 yards anywhere on the field, and maybe throwing when he should have been running because he doesn't have that quality receiver who can deliver just about every game.
The Ravens had 311 yards of total offense, but were just three of 14 on third-down conversions. Thank goodness they had Stover, who has escaped Billick's early-season doghouse by kicking 17 straight field goals.
"I think he has learned that I've been in the league for 10 years for a reason," said Stover. "I can humbly say that I feel like I'm pretty good."
Billick said: "Matt is doing a heck of a job. Matt and I have developed a solid relationship through it all. That's what usually happens when you go through that baptism. Any number of these guys, they understand what I'm about now, and that's part of the building process as well."