Gritty and resilient to the very end, the Ravens' incredible turnaround season finally wheezed its last cold breath in Pittsburgh last night, one game shy of a Super Bowl ending.
A 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game snuffed the dream of a return to Tampa and Super Bowl glory.
One year after a ragged 5-11 season cost Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick his job, the Ravens found strong new leadership in coach John Harbaugh, a quarterback to build the future around in Joe Flacco and the re-emergence of their proud defense.
"This is our beginning," Harbaugh said later. "This is not an end by any stretch. We're excited to go forward and take the next step."
In a throwback game that matched the NFL's two best defenses, the Ravens were able to keep it close enough to have the ball with a chance to take the lead in the final five minutes.
But the unflappable Flacco couldn't produce enough plays in the subfreezing temperatures to pull out yet another improbable playoff upset.
The second of his three interceptions in the game was returned 40 yards by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu for the decisive score with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers (14-4) advance to the Super Bowl in two weeks against the surprising Arizona Cardinals (12-7), who beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-25, in yesterday's NFC championship game.
The AFC title game was a fierce physical game, as expected, and both sides suffered key losses. Ravens running back Willis McGahee had to be stabilized and carted off the field after a violent hit by Steelers safety Ryan Clark in the final four minutes.
McGahee took a short pass from Flacco, turned to go upfield and ducked just as he was about to be hit by Clark. He fumbled the ball on the hit, and it was recovered by the Steelers.
Early this morning, McGahee was resting in UPMC Presbyterian Hospital with movement in all his limbs and was "neurologically intact," a team spokesman said. McGahee's agent told a South Florida television station that he suffered a concussion. Team doctor Leigh Ann Curl was staying with McGahee.
Flacco played his two worst games of the season against the Steelers, who swept three games with Baltimore this season. He completed only three of 14 passes in the first half, and just 13 of 30 in the game with three interceptions.
He completed 11 of 28 in a December regular-season loss at home.
The Ravens, who finished 13-6, have a busy offseason to wade through now. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is expected to be named the New York Jets' head coach, perhaps as soon as today.
Ryan said he didn't have plans to meet with anyone today, but that was subject to change. He sounded like a coach who was prepared to say his goodbyes to a team he has coached for 10 years.
"I was blessed to be in this situation, being around John and Cam Cameron," he said.
Depending on how many assistants Ryan takes with him, Harbaugh might have to restock his staff and will have to name a new coordinator with the idea of keeping the same system.
Then there will be the typical roster changes, except that in this case the Ravens have decisions to make on several prominent players.