One more time, the Ravens blinked with the game on the line. One more time, quarterback Jeff Blake had to explain a costly mistake. One more time, coach Brian Billick had to defend a strategic move.
A week after allowing a game-winning touchdown in the final minute, the Ravens (7-9) were the ones driving the length of the field to the Steelers' 11-yard line. But Blake was intercepted with 14 seconds left in the game, when he short-armed a pass into the end zone and into double coverage.
The Ravens' fourth turnover sealed the first losing season in Billick's four-year tenure.
"I'm not going to second-guess Jeff and how and where he threw it," Billick said. "It was worth a shot. It was my responsibility to call the play and to take a shot. Yeah, we could have kicked the field goal and gone into overtime. But when you're where we're at and what's going on, hell, you take a shot."
On that final drive, the Ravens knew they were playing for pride, not the playoffs. Looking at the scoreboard, they had already been eliminated from the postseason when the Cleveland Browns beat the Atlanta Falcons.
But the Ravens, who racked up a season-best 422 yards of total offense, marched quickly from their 20 to the Pittsburgh 20 primarily on a couple of throws to tight end Todd Heap and a 33-yard, one-handed catch by receiver Randy Hymes. The Ravens then moved inside the red zone with 18 seconds remaining when linebacker Joey Porter was flagged for roughing the passer.
The Ravens called "X-Sluggo, H-Seam" which sent Hymes on a double move (a slant-and-go) on the left side and Heap in the right flat. With Heap sandwiched by Steelers, Blake decided to throw a jump ball to his primary receiver instead. He stared down Hymes, double-clutched and threw a floater to an undrafted rookie who was quarterbacking Grambling State last season.
Standing in front of Hymes, Pittsburgh cornerback Dewayne Washington hauled in the pass as the Steelers picked off Blake in the end zone for the second time.
"Maybe I could have thrown it away," said Blake, an unrestricted free agent this offseason who finished 19-for-26 for 336 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. "But I got a 6-4 receiver on a 5-9 defensive back. I'll take that matchup all day. I put it up to see if he could make the play, and it turned the other way around."
Besides Washington, Hymes was blanketed by safety Lee Flowers as well.
"I was kind of surprised he threw it," Washington said.
The Ravens' back-and-forth bout with the AFC North champions symbolized their season in many ways. The NFL's youngest team started off slowly and gained composure in the middle before falling apart at the end.
Rallying back from 10 points down, the Ravens took a 31-20 lead in the fourth quarter only to watch the Steelers score the game's final 14 points. Flags, turnovers and missed tackles were too much to overcome.
"We have to learn how to finish," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "When you're up on somebody, you got to step on their throat and just finish them off. You have to learn how to do that in this league. You can't let somebody get back up, or else they'll knock you back out."
The Ravens started like they finished.
Driving deep into Steelers territory, Blake threw on the run to a heavily covered Heap. Blake's pass was intercepted in the end zone by Deshea Townsend. Pittsburgh capitalized by going 80 yards to take a 7-0 lead on Hines Ward's 23-yard catch.
"Maybe I should not have thrown it to him because he was double-covered," Blake said. "But I've seen him make those plays before, so I was going to give him an opportunity."