In a span of :30 seconds, the 2011 Baltimore Ravens had a golden opportunity to be a shoo-in representative of the AFC for Super Bowl XLVI, until wide receiver Lee Evans carelessly did not secure the ball when he briefly caught the potential go-ahead winning touchdown pass, allowing New England Patriots’ rookie safety Sterling Moore to knock the pigskin loose. Seconds later, kicker Billy Cundiff trotted onto the field to kick the game into overtime. Instead, the shaky of late Cundiff kicked the ball wide left, sending the Patriots right to the Super Bowl to face the New York Giants on Feb. 5.
What a way to end a campaign loaded with such great promise! On the bright side of the Ravens loss to the Patriots, they were not blown out and they did not lose on a dramatic late drive by their opponent. The Ravens actually lost on their terms, as they defeated themselves by creating mistakes and missing opportunities.
Fortunately, the Ravens can review the season with their heads up high knowing the issues they faced were not caused by their opponents, but were affected by the circumstances they caused for themselves. However, the disappointment of missing the Super Bowl continues to hurt.
"It is. This year is especially, just because we all believed that we were going to win and get to the Super Bowl,” said Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, sadly during the team’s wrap-up season interviews. “This one kind of hurt a little bit more than previous ones. We've just got to get back to work and try to get there again.”
The Ravens may experience a major face-lift going into the 2012 season.
The revolving door for NFL head coaches, via the Ravens’ defensive coordinator position, continues as Chuck Pagano has left for the opportunity of a lifetime to be the headman of a sideline – for the Indianapolis Colts. Former defensive coordinator for the Patriots from 2006 to 2009, Dean Pees will command the position for the Ravens. Similar to all former Ravens’ defensive coordinators (Pagano, Marvin Lewis, Jack Del Rio, Rex Ryan, and Mike Nolan) it is safe to say Pees will be a head coach within the next two seasons.
Pagano’s departure was expected because he is a solid coach. However, the team has 10 players who are free agents and tough decisions will be made.
"It's going to be real tough,” said Ngata. “Just to know some guys on the defensive line … The whole team is going to be different. It's never going to be the same. Every year is always different. So, it's going to be tough."
Running back Ray Rice and guard Ben Grubbs are a part of the 10, and they are not going anywhere – well at least not Rice.
Linebackers Brendon Ayanbadejo, Sergio Kindle (exclusive right) and Jarrett Johnson, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney, defensive end Cory Redding, cornerback Lardarius Webb (restricted), safety Tom Zbikowski, and offensive lineman Andre Gurode are on the street. Normally, the Ravens’ organization takes care of their own and evaluates their talent well.
Other free agents around the NFL will be interested in signing with the Ravens, as the team is expected to be a solid Super Bowl contender next season. Along with the added talent via the NFL Draft, and knowing that linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed are returning for the 2012 season, this anticipated knowledge provides comfort for the players.
"Having Ray back will be phenomenal,” said linebacker Jameel McClain. “He's the best that's ever done this, he's a great guy to learn from, and I've had a wonderful time learning from him. And, he's helped me develop into the player that I am. So, I'll be blessed if I'm still here learning from him again."
The Ravens were disappointed about the way their season ended, and despite the pain, the locker room was laid back as sounds of Al Green fill the air while they cleared out their lockers. Without a doubt, Evans and Cundiff will be haunted by their miscues in the AFC Championship game, as they are eager to make a splash next season when their names are called upon. The Ravens will take some time off, reflect on the past season and return to the “Castle” (the Ravens’ facility) to hit the 2012 upcoming season at full speed.
"I don't have anything planned. I'm sure we'll do something – nothing too big,” said quarterback Joe Flacco. “I don't really like to go places; I'm sure [my wife] doesn't like to hear that. (laughter) Just hang out with some friends and relax a little bit…I wish it would just end and nobody could win a Super Bowl. (laughter) But, we do have to move on. It's the offseason; we've got to get our bodies healthy, get back into shape after that, and get back ready to go."
Barry Barnes is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.