In a classic battle between the NFL's top two defenses, the Ravens watched the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate a 13-9 victory and the division championship on Santonio Holmes' controversial 4-yard touchdown catch with 43 seconds left in the game.
The margin was so slim that the Ravens actually thought they had held the Steelers out of the end zone for a few minutes. But referee Walt Coleman overruled the original decision, signaling a touchdown after a replay review.
According to Coleman, the replay showed that Holmes had control of the pass and the ball broke the plane of the goal line - an opinion not shared by Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
"It didn't look to me like he broke the plane," said Harbaugh, who indicated that he never received an explanation from the officials. "That's what I saw."
The Ravens' first home loss to Pittsburgh since 2002 drops their record to 9-5, the same mark as the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots. But based on the Ravens' record in the AFC (7-4), they hold a half-game lead over the Dolphins (6-4) and a one-game advantage over the Patriots (6-5) for the second wild card, the sixth and final playoff spot. If the Ravens win their final two games, they will make the playoffs.
But the Ravens let their chance to compete for the AFC North title slip through their fingers by allowing a 92-yard drive, the longest of the season against them.
Pittsburgh (11-3) capped the 12-play series by converting third-and-goal on the legs of Ben Roethlisberger.
The 6- foot-5, 241-pound quarterback lumbered all the way to the left sideline before running back to his right. He then found Holmes open in the middle around the goal line.
Holmes made the catch while falling forward and out of the end zone.
Head linesman Paul Weidner made the initial call that the ball didn't break the plane, which meant the Steelers would have faced fourth down from the Ravens' 1-yard line. The decision would have been to kick the short field goal to tie the score at 9 or go for the touchdown and the win.
But Coleman looked at the goal-line view and reversed the ruling. He announced to the 71,502 fans at M&T Bank Stadium (the largest announced crowd in Ravens history) that Holmes had two feet down in the end zone and had possession of the ball, neglecting to say whether the ball had broken the plane.
After the game, Coleman clarified his explanation.
"Yeah, the ball was breaking the plane," said Coleman, an NFL official for 19 seasons who is known for being the referee in "The Tuck Rule Game" between the Patriots and Oakland Raiders in the playoffs after the 2001 season.
"He had two feet down and completed the catch with control of the ball breaking the plane of the goal line."
Holmes, who scored the Steelers' only two offensive touchdowns against the Ravens this season, found a hole in the Ravens' zone defense when he took a few steps away from safety Jim Leonhard in the end zone.
"We got to grab him. I probably had a chance to grab him. Who knows?" said Leonhard, who helped the Ravens throughout the game with his punt returns and tackling. "We'll look at it [today], and everyone will be frustrated."
Asked whether the ball had crossed the goal line, Leonhard gave the proverbial shoulder shrug.
"I have no idea," he said. "It could have went either way."
Ravens defensive end-linebacker Terrell Suggs put a different spin on the debatable touchdown.
"You got to ask yourself why did you put the game in the officials' hands?" Suggs said.
The final drive was surprising because it rarely happens against the Ravens and their defense (which had given up one touchdown in its previous 17 quarters before Holmes' score).
The Ravens have prided themselves on dominating teams in the fourth quarter. But the Steelers owned the fourth yesterday, outscoring the Ravens 10-0.
The Ravens had contained Roethlisberger for 11 drives, holding him to 15-for-29 passing for 158 yards. But on that game-winning series, he completed seven of 11 passes (including one spike to stop the clock) for 88 yards.
"They're an NFL football team," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "If they were a high school football team, I'd be surprised. But they're not."
Welcoming each of his players into the locker room, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin shook their hands and said, "Steeler football is 60 minutes."
Without cornerback Fabian Washington (who was sidelined in the fourth with a hamstring injury), the Ravens picked a bad time to have one of their worst drives of the season.
When it came to the most critical time of the game, the Ravens' defense (which was ranked No.2 in the NFL) couldn't prove it was better than the top-ranked one.
"We played good, but you got to play great," Suggs said. "I'm going to have a hard time sleeping with this one tonight. But I'll get over it in the morning and get ready for Dallas."
The Ravens finish the regular season at Dallas (9-5) and home against the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-9).
"We came up short. They got it done," Harbaugh said. "They're division champs - let's give them credit. Now it's our task to make the playoffs."
The touchdown Referee Walt Coleman's explanation of the Steelers' game-winning touchdown:
"You have to have two feet down to complete the catch. [Santonio Holmes] had two feet down and completed the catch with control of the ball breaking the plane of the goal line.
"...When he gained control of the ball, the ball was breaking the plane, and then he fell into the field of play. But to have a touchdown, all you have to have is a catch, which is the two feet down, possession and control of the ball breaking the plane.
Coleman on why the original play was ruled to not be a touchdown
"[Head linesman Paul Weidner] felt like when the receiver gained possession of the ball, the ball was not breaking the plane of the goal line."