Joe Flacco didn't have a clear view of the play. But in his gut, in that moment, he was convinced he'd just thrown a 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lee Evans with 27 seconds left in the AFC championship game. The Ravens were going to the Super Bowl, and the quarterback had just made it happen. Flacco raised his arms, began to run down the Baltimore sideline through a sea of bodies, and got ready to let loose a cathartic, celebratory roar.
Then he saw the back judge, Keith Ferguson, make the signal that stopped him cold: Incomplete pass.
It may go down as the craziest — and ultimately, the most heartbreaking — sequence of football in Baltimore Ravens history. Flacco, who had been maligned and criticized and mocked incessantly by much of the country leading up to the AFC championship game, really did look like he'd been cast as the hero for the briefest sliver of time. But Evans let Patriots' cornerback Sterling Moore rip the ball out of his hands before he could definitively get his second foot down, and the chance was snatched away.
On the third down Flacco couldn't connect with a well-covered Dennis Pitta near the goal line, and on fourth down, with 15 seconds left, Billy Cundiff yanked a 32-yard field wide to the left. It was all over but the kneeling. Patriots 23, Ravens 20.
Thus ended arguably the most impressive — but also the most disappointing — football game of Joseph Vincent Flacco's professional career. If anyone envisioned a scenario where Flacco would have played better than Tom Brady prior to Sunday, they didn't have the guts to say it publicly. But that's exactly what happened. Flacco completed 22-of-36 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns, and it's not a stretch to say he was the best player on the field the entire day. (Vince Wilfork is the only man who could offer a counter argument.) But somehow, it still wasn't enough.
When Flacco walked to the podium minutes after it was over, still wearing a purple Ravens T-shirt that was soaked with sweat, he wasn't quite sure how to explain the flood of emotions churning in his head. But he did not feel vindicated. He just felt the sharp sting of falling short.
"We lost, and someone has to lose," Flacco said. "For us, we laid it all out there. We can look at each other and say we left it all out on the field and we gave it our best. Did we play every play our best and did we execute everything the best? No. If we [had], we'd be probably be out on the field celebrating. But it just doesn't happen that way. Somebody lost. It was us. But we left it all out there. We've got to be proud of that and move on."
Flacco said his critics — and there were a lot of them prior to Sunday — could believe whatever they wanted to believe about him. He really wasn't interested in validation, then or now. He said he wasn't particularly bothered when his teammate Ed Reed said he was "rattled" by the Houston Texans, and it didn't matter that those comments served as fuel for those doubting him.
"I don't care," Flacco said. "Look at the film. If you look at the film, you see how I play. I pretty much play the same every week. If you think I played better this week than other weeks, then I think you're wrong. This is the way I play every week, and I really don't care. I don't know if I'll ever prove everything. That's not up to me. My job is to go out there and give our team the best shot to win."
Flacco admitted he got off to a bit of a slow start on the Ravens first two drives. New England pressured him early, he missed a couple of open reads, and the Ravens began the game with three consecutive three-and-outs. But in the second quarter, Cam Cameron called a naked bootleg on first down that sent Flacco rolling to his right. The Patriots were badly fooled, and Flacco had Torrey Smith running down the sideline all alone. It wasn't the perfect pass, as Smith had to slow down to catch it, but the result was a 42-yard gain. That one play, which led to a Cundiff field goal, appeared to settle down the offense.
"I wasn't quite sure if I wanted to set up and let one go because I thought someone else might get there by then," Flacco said of his decision to throw without planting his feet. "I just tried to hit him on the run and I didn't quite get it out there very far. He did a good job of throwing his hand up and alerting me that he was open."
Something clicked, however, in that moment. Flacco drove the Ravens 80 yards in eight plays and tied the game at 10-10 with a 6-yard touchdown to Dennis Pitta. He kept the ball out of Brady's hands late in the half with a clutch first down throw to Pitta on 3rd-and-14, a pass that burned up clock and forced the Patriots to kneel on the ball when they did get it. He gave his team a 17-16 lead when he hit Smith perfectly in stride on a out pattern, and Smith was able to turn the corner and leap into the end zone.
"[Spikes] made a hell of a play," Flacco said. "I thought we had it. We had Ed running right down the middle of the hole and [Spikes] sticks his hand up and catches the ball and goes the other way."
It ultimately didn't matter, because safety Bernard Pollard and cornerback Jimmy Smith bailed out the offense with one the most athletic interceptions you'll ever see in post-season play. The Ravens defense even held Brady and the Pats a second time in the fourth quarter, and that set up Flacco's near miss with Evans.
"We were throwing a little slant and go there," Flacco said, describing the throw to Evans. "I figured even though they had a safety on that side, we'd have a chance to have the corner turn his head and get lost there. That's what I saw. I just said 'I'm going to throw it and give Lee a chance with it.' "
Flacco said he never felt the need to make a case for his abilities beyond his play on the field, but his teammates weren't shy about voicing support for him in the locker room, deep inside Gillette Stadium.
"He played his tail off," Pollard said of Flacco. "For the people that keep dogging him, if you ain't never played this game, shut up. Shut up. Flacco played his tail off. He went out there and played. I think a lot of people just don't understand. We understand it's your job, but you never spatted up and put your skills on display on the field. That man does it week in and week out. He's a winner. For everybody that keeps dogging him and saying whatever ... shut up."
Flacco said the locker room was quiet for several minutes after the loss. Everyone needed to sit by themselves for a spell, and let it all sink in. The Patriots were out on the field celebrating, and set to go to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl. The Ravens were headed back to Baltimore.
Eventually, Flacco went around the room and told each of his teammates he was proud of the game they played. He dressed quickly after he was done giving interviews, slung his black backpack over his right shoulder, then ducked into the hallway. In a sea of people, he found a chair by the wall and sat by himself for a few seconds. Then the Ravens quarterback rose to his feet and walked toward the team bus.