Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Lee Evans (83) is stripped of the ball by New England Patriots free safety Sterling Moore (29) during the second half of the AFC Championship NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, in Foxborough, Mass. Right is New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty (32). The Patriots defeated the Ravens 23-20 to win the AFC Championship. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Updated: January 23, 2012 9:44AM
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Lee Evans had victory in his hands. Billy Cundiff had a tie game on his toe.
Two chances in the final 30 seconds to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive and the Baltimore Ravens let both slip away.
Evans was stripped after briefly hauling in Joe Flacco’s pass in the back right corner of the end zone and, two plays later, Cundiff pushed a 32-yard field goal attempt wide left in Sunday’s AFC championship game. The New England Patriots won 23-20 and the Ravens ended their season disappointed but not disgraced.
“We’re grinders,” said linebacker Ray Lewis, wiping his face with a towel in the quiet Ravens locker room. “We’re coming home and we’re coming home with smiles. But, most importantly, when we start back training, we’re coming back (ticked) off. Why wouldn’t we be?”
The Ravens gave the Patriots all they could handle.
The much-maligned Flacco played one of his best games of the season. The third-ranked Baltimore defense held Tom Brady without a touchdown pass for the first time in 36 games. And the Ravens moved from their 21-yard line to a second-and-1 at the Patriots 14 with 27 seconds left.
Plenty of time to at least tie the score.
On the next play, Evans had the pass in his grasp. But Sterling Moore, a rookie free agent who was cut once by the Patriots this season, arrived just in time to knock out the ball.
“I feel like I had it, but it came out,” Evans said. “I don’t know how to put it into words. Honestly, it’s the most disappointing part of all of this that I feel personally that I let everybody down.
“It hit me right where you would want to be hit. It was a great pass by Joe and a play not completed by me. Nobody else can take the fault.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh thought the play should have been reviewed, but because coaches can’t ask for a review in the last two minutes of a half, he was powerless.
“Obviously, in that situation I thought they would look at it,” he said, “but they didn’t. I have not talked to anybody, didn’t get a chance to, so I don’t know what the explanation is on that.”
But the Ravens weren’t done.
On the next play, needing a yard for a first down, Flacco threw toward Dennis Pitta. Again, Moore made a late move to knock the ball away.
Still, there was a chance to send the game into overtime. And Cundiff had kicked field goals of 48 and 44 yards a week earlier in a 20-13 win over the Houston Texans. He had made 10 of 12 field goals between 30 and 39 yards this season.
Not this time.
Morgan Cox snapped, Sam Koch held. Cundiff, the All-Pro kicker in the 2010 season, swung his leg.
On the Ravens sideline, jaws dropped and heads sank. There was a look of shock that such a dependable kicker had missed such a makeable kick.
“The timing was just a little off,” Cundiff said. “I’m disappointed. I let my teammates down.”
His teammates didn’t think so. The kick was one of dozens of plays that affected the outcome.
“Not one play won or lost this game,” Lewis said. “There’s no ‘Oh, Billy’s the fault. Billy missed the (kick).’ There’s no freaking ‘Billy missed the kick.’ It happened. Move on.”
Linebacker Terrell Suggs is moving away from football for now. He has no plans to watch the Super Bowl.
“If I’m not playing in it, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “No matter who wins, I lose.”
Flacco will move on after answering his doubters by completing 22 of 36 passes for 306 yards, his third most of the season. He had two touchdowns but threw a costly interception that Brandon Spikes caught at the Patriots 31 and returned to the 50 midway through the fourth quarter.
On the next play, though, Jimmy Smith intercepted Brady’s pass in the end zone.
Baltimore drove to the Patriots 30, but on third-and-3, Rice was stuffed for a 3-yard loss. After calling a timeout, the Ravens decided to go for it on fourth-and-6 instead of having Cundiff try a tying 51-yard field goal.
But Flacco couldn’t find an open receiver, throwing the ball away and giving the Patriots possession with 2:46 remaining. The defense forced a punt, and Flacco began his final drive of the season with 1:44 left, 79 yards from the end zone.
He completed five of seven passes before the oh-so-close toss to Evans.
“He played his tail off,” Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said, “and for the people who keep dogging him, man, if you never played this game, shut up, shut up, you know. He played his tail off.”
And his pass to Evans was right on target. The celebration on Baltimore’s sideline already had started.
“If you weren’t celebrating, you weren’t a Raven fan,” said Lewis, dressed in a brown pinstripe suit after removing his uniform for the last time this season. “That’s the irony of sports. It’s a game of inches.”
Inches that make all the difference between a chance for a championship and a promise for next season.
“We fell 15 seconds from having it,” Suggs said, “so, please believe, it won’t happen again.”