INDIANAPOLIS—The Ravens were 74 seconds away from stealing a victory.
One play later, their players and coaches were screaming they got robbed.Playing without four starters - including team leader Ray Lewis - the undermanned Ravens shocked a sellout RCA Dome crowd by holding a one-point lead in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. But the Ravens' recent run of nail-biters finally caught up to them, as a controversial pass-interference call on cornerback Gary Baxter led to an excruciating, 22-20 loss to the Indianapolis Colts yesterday.
Mike Vanderjagt's 38-yard field goal with four seconds remaining won the game, and the Ravens left the field shaking their heads in disgust.
"It hurts knowing the game was right there," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "What a win could have done for these guys emotionally to back up the way they played. It's unfortunate sometimes when the game is taken out of their hands.
"I'm in awe of the officials in their ability to so succinctly and quickly make a determination as to what happened. [But] the officials are beyond reproach."
Leading 20-19 in the fourth quarter, the Ravens (2-3) had a chance to extend their advantage, but quarterback Chris Redman fumbled after getting hit on his blind side. Although Redman recovered the loose ball, the 7-yard loss took the Ravens out of field-goal range and set up an emotional finish.
Facing a fourth-and-10 with 1:14 remaining, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was flushed out of the pocket and rushed a wild throw that sailed high over Qadry Ismail. When Ismail leapt for the ball, Baxter collided with him, drawing a 22-yard interference penalty at the Ravens' 42.
The Colts (4-1) insisted it was an easy call because Baxter never turned to look for the ball. Baxter argued otherwise.
"I heard the team holler, `Ball,' and all I did was jump," said Baxter, a second-year player. "I didn't touch him, and they called pass interference. I was surprised by the call. Words really can't express how I feel right now."
Several of the Ravens contended that Ismail "flopped" to get the call, and that the ball was uncatchable.
"Sometimes you have to be a good actor and then look at the ref," said Ismail, the Ravens' all-time leading receiver, who signed with the Colts as a free agent in the offseason.
The penalty was called in front of the Ravens' bench and caused instant pandemonium. Billick stormed the field, yelling at the officials. His players jumped on the sidelines in anger.
The protest was to no avail. Five plays later, Vanderjagt kicked his fifth field goal to put the Colts back ahead for good.
The Ravens, who had survived fourth-quarter rallies the past two weeks, fall into a first-place tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers atop the underachieving AFC North. The Ravens' first loss in a month overshadowed a valiant effort without injured starters Lewis, receiver Brandon Stokley, center Mike Flynn and defensive end Michael McCrary.
Sidelined with a partially dislocated left shoulder, Lewis told his teammates before the game to "take a piece of me out there with you." The Ravens responded by holding Colts running back Edgerrin James to a career-low 43 yards rushing and keeping Manning in check with 284 yards passing.
Lewis, though, couldn't leave the locker room without giving a piece of his mind.
"These guys fought their asses off, played one heck of a game, and a b------- call at the end of the game caused them to lose it," Lewis said. "These guys played their hearts out. We play in a billion-dollar business and you let one guy make a call."
The Ravens were lucky to be in position to win the game after fumbling seven times - which tied a franchise record - and Redman reverted to some poor decisions.
Trailing 10-6 late in the first half, Redman was backed in his own territory and was supposed to throw a safe, dump-off pass to running back Jamal Lewis. Instead, he gunned a pass into triple coverage for Travis Taylor and was intercepted by linebacker Mike Peterson. Two plays later, Vanderjagt increased the lead to 13-6 with a 50-yard field goal.
"I kind of got greedy," Redman said of his first interception in 73 attempts. "It was a bad decision. He was open earlier, and so I figured, `Hey, why not take a shot?' I learned from that."
Midway through the third quarter, the Ravens tied the game at 13 on a gutsy call.
On a fourth-and-one at the Colts' 5, Redman faked a dive to fullback Alan Ricard, sucking in both of Indianapolis' inside linebackers. Redman then flipped the ball left to Lewis, who coasted into the end zone.
"Jamal could have crawled in if he wanted to," Redman said.
The Colts used field goals on their next two possessions to pull ahead 19-13 early in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens responded with a 67-yard drive in which Lewis produced more than half of the yards. After a 31-yard pass to tight end Todd Heap, Lewis capped off the series by following blocks of Ricard and left tackle Jonathan Ogden.
Lewis' 5-yard touchdown run gave the Ravens their first lead with 9:04 remaining.
"The hole was huge, and it looked just like it did in practice," said Lewis, who accounted for 77 of the team's 142 yards of total offense in the second half along with both touchdowns. "I just walked in really. There was no running, no power. It was just there."
Momentum was firmly on the Ravens' side after nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu hurried Manning into throwing an interception. Anthony Mitchell returned the pick to midfield, and the Ravens were in Matt Stover's range at the Indianapolis 34.
But Redman waited too long for rookie receiver Javin Hunter to get open and fumbled after getting hit from behind by Chad Bratzke. Though Redman jumped on the loose ball, the Ravens had to punt, knowing a field goal could beat them.
"We hated them to give them that last possession," Billick said. "You can't give [Manning] the ball back and not know something was going to happen."
A minute later, Billick watched his worst fears materialize but insisted his team didn't leave empty-handed.
"We grew up a lot today," Billick said. "Even as hard as it is to understand, this team became more of a team today. They really did."