- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2007

BALTIMORE.

With less than four minutes left and the Indianapolis Colts driving, the Baltimore Ravens were penalized for having 12 men on the field.

That was the only time the Ravens appeared to have any connection to what their 12th man — the fans — are going through on this dark day in Baltimore sports history, when the city and its faithful were forced to watch the Colts leave broken hearts behind again, this time defeating the Ravens 15-6 and eliminating them from the playoffs.

“This is the worst day of the year,” said tight end Todd Heap, which again illustrates the difference between the importance of the game for the players versus the fans.

This was the worst day for Baltimore football fans since Paul Tagliabue picked Charlotte and Jacksonville to become NFL expansion teams in 1993, and told Baltimore to build libraries instead.

“It hurts bad,” safety Ed Reed said. “But we are not defined by championships. We had a great year. … hats off to our fans.”

The fans didn’t want hats. They wanted revenge against the team that abandoned them 23 years ago, sneaking away in the night in Mayflower moving vans.

Instead, they were insulted by a performance from a team that clearly wasn’t ready to take the field yesterday.

The Ravens won the toss, which had Baltimore karma surrounding it when recently elected Hall of Famer Cal Ripken brought the official coin out to the middle of the field for the ceremony. After a 27-yard return by Cory Ross started the Ravens’ opening drive at the 29-yard line, a frenzied record crowd for football in Baltimore (71,162) was ready to watch the Ravens deliver some payback.

But after two runs by Jamal Lewis for a combined 3 yards and one 5-yard pass by Steve McNair to Mark Clayton, the Ravens punted and the air was going out of M&T; Bank Stadium.

That set the tone for the entire game. The Ravens were three-and-out so many times you may have thought it was their strategy. And McNair, who seemed like the missing ingredient with his leadership and play-action skills, looked like he aged five years since the end of the regular season.

McNair completed 18 of 29 passes for just 173 yards and two interceptions for a quarterback rating of 49.9. Heck, Kyle Boller could have done that.

And he wasn’t even the worst quarterback on the field. Peyton Manning completed just 15 of 30 passes for 170 yards and two interceptions for a 39.9 rating.

There was so much bad quarterbacking in this game that someone should have covered up the statue of Johnny Unitas in front of the stadium, so he wouldn’t have to be embarrassed by what was taking place on the field.

Those fans left at the end of the game could have used a blindfold as well, so they didn’t have to watch the hated Colts celebrating their victory right in front of their eyes, in their city, in a game that was the Ravens’ kind of game — low-scoring (not one touchdown), with turnovers.

“I’m disappointed for the fans,” said Ravens coach Brian Billick, his reputation as offensive genius reaching a comedic low. “This football team is as disappointed as our fans are, which is matched tenfold by the players. The team appreciates our fans. The energy they had all this week, they were deserving of better than that, but it just wasn’t going to happen, and we will move forward.”

Well, Brian, I doubt that the team is as disappointed as the Baltimore fans are, if you are talking about moving forward. This game was all about the past, not the future, and, as Jake Gittes said in “The Two Jakes” — the sequel to “Chinatown” — “The past never goes away.”

The wound only widened for yesterday Baltimore fans, who were prepared before the game to at least amend the past, if not make it disappear. There were banners throughout the stadium that touched on the Colts leaving town, such as “Colts died 3/29/84. Today we bury them.”

Manning wants the whole angry history to be buried.

“I understand a little bit what these fans might be going through, because with all the rumors in New Orleans,” he said. “I grew up a die-hard Saints fan, and if the New Orleans Saints were ever to leave New Orleans, I might feel the same way. But I wouldn’t hold it against the players. I would hold it against the owner, and the owner of that team [Bob Irsay] is no longer living, and his son [Jimmy Irsay] is our owner now, and I think they are two different people. I never knew the previous owner, and everything I ever heard or read about him, I don’t think I probably would have liked him, but his son, our current owner, I do like, and he is a good owner.

“This thing needs to move on. It has nothing to do with us. … there were a lot of middle fingers on the bus ride over here.”

But it still has everything to do with Manning and everyone else who wears a Colts uniform, because that is the uniform of the heroes who captured the heart of a city. Like one banner at the stadium, referring to the uniform numbers of Unitas (19) and Manning (18), read: “19 will always be better than 18.”

Peyton Manning doesn’t get it, and never will. Unfortunately for Baltimore fans, their new team doesn’t quite get it, either.

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