It was a loss that left an ultra-bitter taste in the collective mouths of the Baltimore Ravens.
Not just because of the final score: New England 27, Baltimore 21. The bad feelings emanated from the way the Ravens lost that Oct. 4 game at Gillette Stadium. Specifically, there was a clear sense that it was taken away by a third party: The guys in the stripes.
As the Ravens prepare to return to Foxborough, Mass., for their Wild-Card game with the Patriots, they can't help but remember the maddening circumstances that caused them to suffer their first defeat of the regular season.
Two highly questionable roughing-the-passer penalties kept alive a pair of Patriots touchdown drives. After what seemed, at best, to be incidental contact with Tom Brady on both occassions, Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs each drew flags that advanced New England 15 yards.
Brady fell to the ground after Ngata grazed the side of his helmet. A well-staged flop was how Ngata later described the quarterback's reaction to reporters. Suggs barely bumped into Brady's legs, but as the quarterback hopped out of the way, he called for a flag -- and got one.
But rather than focus on what the officials did to impact the outcome, Harbaugh, his players and assistant coaches have adopted an "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em" approach. They have surrendered to the fact that, when it comes to roughing-the-passer calls, officials are going to err on the side of caution. If contact looks even remotely close to a violation, a flag will fly. That is how the NFL instructs all officials to view such plays.
And the Ravens have adjusted accordingly.
"We just can't put ourselves in bad situations and put a game into a ref's hands," Ngata said. "We've just been working on when and where to hit the quarterback or try to work on technique to not have as many penalties. I think, as a team, we've been kind of working towards not putting a game in a ref's hands."
As Harbaugh explained to reporters this week, it is up to him and the rest of the Ravens' coaching staff to stress the importance of avoiding penalties.
"You try to improve that part of your football team if you can," he said. "Obviously, it relates to the way rules are interpreted, and that's the thing you try to do as a coach -- give your guys the best chance to play the game within the rules and avoid penalties as much as you can."
Still, that game did mark the Ravens' second consecutive loss to the Patriots that ended with Baltimore players complaining about officials' calls. The previous one was a Monday night contest in 2007 at Baltimore, when it looked as if New England would suffer its first loss of a regular season it would later finish 16-0.
But to continue to harp on what officials did in a game played in October, Lewis said, is to lose focus on the game at hand. "That week, whatever your frustrations were, they were," he told reporters. "... I'm not upset anymore. It's a new year."
Do the Ravens feel they should have won the game? Joe Flacco, their second-year quarterback, certainly thinks so. He sees the Wild-Card matchup as the Ravens' "chance to go up there and try to get it back and prove to everybody and prove to ourselves that we can beat these guys."
The Ravens aren't quite as impressive as they were last year when they marched all the way to the AFC Championship Game, which ended with a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This year, they needed to beat Oakland in the final week of the regular season just to secure a playoff spot.
Their defensive front seven remains strong, but their secondary has been ravaged by injuries and allowed numerous big plays. Their running game is strong, but Flacco has experienced a slump in the second half of the season after playing well through the first eight games.
Rather than viewing the Ravens as stumbling into the postseason, Ngata sees the recent struggles -- including a Week 16 loss at Pittsburgh -- as reasons to believe his team has the necessary mental toughness for what's ahead.
"For the past couple of weeks, it felt like we were in the playoffs already because we kind of felt like if we lost a game, we were going to be out," Ngata said. "We've been in a playoff mode for a while now, and I think it's just kind of helped us to prepare."
Let the naysayers insist that the Ravens don't belong in the playoffs. Let them describe Baltimore as a long shot to go the distance.
Ngata and his teammates insist they don't care. They believe in themselves, and trust the leadership core formed by Lewis and other veterans.
"We're real confident," Ngata said. "We feel real strong about our team, and I think we can go far. I think there are a lot of people thinking we can't make it that far, but we definitely have a lot of confidence in ourselves.
"When you have guys like Ray Lewis and Derrick Mason and Ed Reed on your team to keep that confidence up and to see those guys show their example, there's no way for you to not have confidence."