PITTSBURGH — The Baltimore Ravens were good enough to reach the second round of the NFL playoffs, yet too flawed to get any farther.
The Ravens won 13 games, finished tied atop the AFC North and made a third straight trip to the postseason. They also had an inconsistent offense, a propensity for blowing fourth-quarter leads and a mediocre 6-4 record on the road.
Which explains why their season ended in all too familiar fashion — with a disappointing defeat in Pittsburgh.
The Ravens (13-5) were 30 minutes away from advancing to the AFC title game after taking a 21-7 halftime lead against the Steelers on Saturday. It all unraveled in the second half, when Baltimore self-destructed in a 31-24 loss.
The Ravens are now 0-3 against the Steelers in the playoffs.
"No disrespect to Pittsburgh, but coming into the game you're really not too worried because I really feel like we have more talent than them and we should beat them, and it shouldn't be close," cornerback Chris Carr declared. "When it was 21-7, we came in here at halftime and were like, 'It should be like that.' We should expect that. To choke like the way we did is just ..."
His voice trailed off because words couldn't truly express how disgusted he was at having the season end that way.
The Ravens lost primarily because they committed three second-half turnovers that Pittsburgh converted into 17 points. Joe Flacco is only the third quarterback since 1970 to make the playoffs in his first three seasons, but his play against the Steelers was erratic: He threw for only 125 yards, lost a fumble, was picked off once and sacked five times.
Flacco was clearly outdone by Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, who orchestrated a magnificent comeback win against a team that lost nine fourth-quarter leads this season.
"It sucks to lose a game like this," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. "We've got to figure out a way to beat the Steelers at (their) home. It stings every time we lose here."
Changes must be made during the offseason if the Ravens are to compete with the AFC elite.
"We've got a lot of work to do," coach John Harbaugh said. "You better keep working all the time to be as good as you can possibly be. It's a competitive world we live in."
Ngata had no desire to put a positive spin on a season that ended so bitterly.
"I don't think it ever feels like you can let it go," he said. "You want to work harder so that you can come here and beat them."
Linebacker Ray Lewis wasn't as despondent as the others, even though he's spent the last decade trying to duplicate the feeling he experienced in leading the Ravens to their only Super Bowl win.
"It's heartbreaking for us to lose the way we lost. Absolutely," he said. "But you have to set it aside. We had a heck of a year. We had a heck of a run at it.
"Me being the leader of this team, there are a lot of guys who are going to be hurt because of this game. A lot of guys are going to beat themselves up because of this play or that play. All you can do is come back and be better."
The offense struggled at times this season despite the addition of wide receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the latter of whom is a free agent and might not be back.
Ngata, cornerbacks Carr and Josh Wilson, and offensive tackle Jared Gaither will also be unrestricted free agents heading into an offseason that could be halted by a work stoppage.Comment on this story
When the Ravens return, their overriding goal will be putting together a team capable of beating Pittsburgh.
"We're both good football teams," Flacco said. "The bottom line is they're better at winning right now than we are. We have to improve. We're just not there yet."
Flacco may have plenty more opportunities to get to the Super Bowl. For the over-30 crowd, which includes Lewis, safety Ed Reed and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg, time is running out.
"We're obviously frustrated we lost the lead," tackle Marshal Yanda said. "It sucks we couldn't get it done for the old guys, for Ray, for Ed. It's tough to go out like that."