A rare free fall: Ravens went from No. 1 seed to out of playoffs in six weeks

Why the Ravens have the best chance to turn things around next season (1:22)

Marcus Spears is optimistic about the Ravens' playoff chances next season after player absences decimated the team this season. (1:22)

BALTIMORE -- Some Baltimore Ravens players looked away in anger as soon as Chris Boswell’s 36-yard field goal sailed through the uprights in overtime. Others glanced back at the goal post in disgust while walking off the rain-soaked M&T Bank Stadium field.

The Ravens’ 16-13 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday provided a bitter ending to a season filled with them, knocking Baltimore out of the postseason and wrapping up one of the biggest free falls in NFL history. The Ravens (8-9) became the first team in the past 19 seasons to go from being the No. 1 seed in the conference to failing to make the playoffs six weeks later, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Strong safety Chuck Clark summed up the frustration when, it's believed, he became the first Ravens player ever to step up to a postgame podium, give one answer to the opening question and walk away.

“Just watch how we bounce back,” Clark said. "That’s all I have to say.”

On Nov. 28, Baltimore was 8-3 and atop the AFC despite losing its top two running backs (J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards), two Pro Bowl cornerbacks (Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters) and an All-Pro left tackle (Ronnie Stanley) to season-ending injuries. The Ravens had beaten the Kansas City Chiefs, the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers. Their projected playoff chances were at 93.1%, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Then, week by week, the Ravens went from a team in control of its playoff fate to one that suddenly struggled to finish games. Five of Baltimore’s defeats in its season-ending six-game losing streak were by a combined eight points. Failed 2-point conversions, late defensive collapses and a critical injury to quarterback Lamar Jackson all led to small margins of defeat and a large amount of pain.

This type of late-season collapse isn’t unprecedented, but it’s occurred only a couple of times over the past three decades. The last team to drop from the top seed in the conference to out of the playoff race in the final six weeks of the regular season was the 2002 Miami Dolphins, who went from being 7-4 in Week 12 to getting bounced from the postseason.

"We fell short in numerous games here down the stretch in the sense that we just couldn’t find a play,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We couldn’t find a play that we needed.”

Here’s a look at how a once-overachieving season unraveled in disappointment:

Week 13 (Dec. 5) at Pittsburgh: The first sign Baltimore’s fortune was about to change came with 12 seconds left at Heinz Field. After the Ravens had closed to 20-19, they decided to try to win the game with a 2-point conversion, because their secondary was so depleted, and they targeted their best receiver.

But tight end Mark Andrews, who would go on to set the franchise record for catches with 107, pulled up a little on his route and watched Jackson’s pass go off his outstretched left hand. “That’s a play I know I can make,” Andrews said after the loss. “So, I’m going to be better.”

The Ravens still led the AFC North by one game over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Week 14 (Dec. 12) at the Cleveland Browns: A major question mark loomed over the rest of the season when Jackson hurt his right ankle after getting pulled down by Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah following a pass. Jackson was carted off the field early in the second quarter and never played again.

The Ravens, though, nearly rallied from a 21-point deficit. Baltimore pulled within 24-22 on Andrews’ 8-yard touchdown catch from backup Tyler Huntley and then recovered the team’s first successful onside kick in 20 years. But Huntley’s 2-yard pass on fourth-and-6 sealed the loss with 56 seconds remaining. "If we made those plays, that one last play in all these games, it would be a whole different outcome,” Huntley said at the end of the season. “We’ll be in the playoffs, and everything will be OK.”

Despite the back-to-back losses, Baltimore held on to first place in the AFC North. The Ravens’ playoff chances were 73% with four weeks to go.

Week 15 (Dec. 19) vs. Green Bay: For the second time in three weeks, Harbaugh aggressively opted to go for a 2-point conversion in the final minute of regulation to win the game and came up short. With 42 seconds left, Huntley’s incompletion to Andrews on a 2-point try led to a 31-30 loss to the Packers, who would finish the regular season with the NFL’s best record.

The analytics favored Harbaugh’s decisions, but the Ravens finished tied for the most failed 2-point attempts (2-of-8) in the NFL. "I guess that’s what makes it so exciting, and when it doesn’t work out, so kind of devastating,” Harbaugh said a day after the loss. “Because if we had hit two of these 2-point conversions, we would be No. 1 in the AFC right now.”

The Ravens relinquished sole possession of first place in the division for the first time in eight weeks.

Week 16 (Dec. 26) at Cincinnati: The combination of injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak left the Ravens with 13 defensive players practicing heading into a battle for first place with the Bengals. “You go from the beginning of the season with our roster to right now, I don’t know if we’re playing football or the ‘Squid Game,'" defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said, alluding to the Korean survival horror-drama series.

If the odds weren’t stacked against Baltimore enough, Huntley tested positive for COVID-19 a day before the game. That meant 35-year-old journeyman Josh Johnson would start at quarterback 11 days after signing with the Ravens. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman later said he’s never been involved in a season like this one, adding, “It’s like a Larry David episode.”

The Ravens were blown out 41-21, which essentially eliminated them from a division race they had led two weeks earlier.

Week 17 (Jan. 2) vs. L.A. Rams: The Ravens never trailed the NFC West champions until the game’s final minute, when missing their top three cornerbacks finally caught up with them. Odell Beckham Jr. converted a fourth-and-5 and then caught the winning, 7-yard touchdown pass on the next play.

With that 20-19 loss, the Ravens lost their fourth game by two or fewer points, tied for the most such games in a single season in NFL history, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau. This loss also plummeted Baltimore’s playoff chances to 3.3%.

“It hurts a lot -- just knowing you had everything at your fingertips, and we just didn’t capitalize,” Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen said. “We didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity we had.”

Week 18 (Jan. 9) vs. Pittsburgh: The three-point loss to the Ravens’ biggest rival was an excruciating way to end the season, but it was a fitting one. Baltimore lost its last five games decided by three or fewer points. This came after the Ravens had won their first four games by a margin of three points or fewer.

The Ravens recorded their first losing season since 2015 and finished in last place in the AFC North for the first time in Harbaugh’s 14 seasons.

"I appreciate [Harbaugh] for saying we fought and whatnot, but I think all of us are going to look back and just realize we didn’t get it done -- and we still had a chance, but we didn’t get it done -- at the end of the day,” running back Latavius Murray said. "There aren’t second-place trophies -- or anything like that -- being handed out.”