OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) - For all they accomplished - an unprecedented perfect record at home, a division title and a berth in the AFC title game - the Baltimore Ravens nevertheless fell tantalizingly short of reaching their ultimate goal.
This time, a dropped pass and a missed field goal in the final minute ended Baltimore's quest to reach the Super Bowl.
"Coming up short just gets kind of old," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said Monday as the players said their goodbyes and stuffed their belongings into oversized trash bags.
Four years ago, the Ravens advanced to the AFC championship game before losing at Pittsburgh in a game decided in the closing minutes.
In the 2009 playoffs, Baltimore beat New England and then fell at Indianapolis. Last year, the Ravens' season ended with a 31-24 loss at Pittsburgh in a game they led 21-7 at halftime.
And now this: Baltimore (13-5) gave the Patriots all they could handle before Lee Evans lost his grip on a pass in the end zone and Billy Cundiff's 32-yard field goal try sailed wide left.
One tough loss is difficult to take. Four agonizing defeats, in successive seasons, are downright intolerable.
"This year especially," Ngata said. "I think we all believed we were going to win and get to the Super Bowl. This one kind of hurt a little bit more than in previous years, but you've just got to get back to work and try to get there again."
"If you get blown out, you just say you lost," cornerback Chris Carr said. "But when you feel like you lost to a team that's inferior to you, you're always going to be second-guessing, wishing you could have done this, looking at this play, looking at that play. It's extremely unsettling."
For the second time in two days, Cundiff stood before reporters and cameras Monday and explained what it felt like to miss a chip-shot field goal with so much on the line. He swallowed hard, instructed the throng to move back, then told everyone that he was ready to move forward.
"You face the music. You understand what goes on with the game and the position I play," Cundiff said. "Everyone's going to be there to pat you on the back when you make the kick. A lot of times I try to deflect the attention because it is a team win. And when things don't go the way you want them to, you've got to take a lot of the blame."
None of the Ravens blamed the loss entirely on Cundiff, who hopes to make amends in Baltimore next season.
"These situations, they don't define a person. It's the response that defines somebody," he said. "I can either go ahead and roll over, or I can pick myself up - knowing it's going to sting - get back to work and prepare for next year."
Ah, next year. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis promised he will return for a 17th season, but the roster will inevitably be altered from its current state.
"You know it's going to happen but you don't know which guys it's going to be," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's tough to be in our shoes and go through that. You hope they bring as many people back as they can."
As soon as he arrived home Sunday night, Flacco shaved off the Fu Manchu mustache he grew in the latter part of the season.
He played brilliantly in defeat at New England, which could help to blunt the criticism he received this season and perhaps get him a new contract before his current deal expires next year.
"The first four years I've played here we've gone to the playoffs every time, won a game," Flacco said. "I think the last two years I've played well in the playoffs. I think if you watch the film and you're a guy in this organization, you can say I've played well."
"It (stinks) because it starts over," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Back to the training and when are you coming in for workouts and stuff like that. And then eventually training camp is going to open again, and it just (stinks) because we've done so much. Just to fall short, it's bad."