If this was just a semi-final game, what will the AFC championship game be like? The Baltimore Ravens improbable double-overtime win at the heavily-favored Denver Broncos has everyone talking this morning.
Was it Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, with 30 seconds left in regulation to tie the game? Was it Denver’s Trindon Holliday returning a punt AND a kickoff for touchdowns? Was it Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis’ dominating play (17 tackles over the nearly 77-minute game)? Was it Denver’s remarkable quarterback Peyton Manning’s bad throw, intended for Brandon Stokley, that Baltimore intercepted to set up the winning field goal?
Yes…that and more. I have seen a lot of Ravens games since they came into the league in 1996 including the 2001 Super Bowl victory over the New York Giants. I have seen them lose more than their share of games on last-second miscues (see: 2012 AFC Championship – Billy Cundiff). I have never seen a game like this.
When the best game that almost every Ravens’ player had ever been a part of was finally over, Flacco threw his hands in the air, kicker Justin Tucker emphatically pumped his fist and Lewis dropped to his knees, reduced to tears.
Tucker’s 47-yard field goal 1 minute and 42 seconds into the second overtime ended a thrilling and exhausting divisional round playoff game and sent the Ravens into the AFC championship game for the second straight year. The 38-35 victory over the Denver earns the Ravens a date with the winner of Sunday’s game between the New England Patriots and the Houston Texans. The AFC championship game will kickoff next Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the home of Sunday’s winner.
“When all the emotions calm down, it will probably be one of the greatest victories in Ravens history,” said Lewis whose retirement tour moves on at least one more week.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith who had two touchdown catches outplaying Broncos star cornerback Champ Bailey. “You play some games on Madden and you can’t even do that.”
“I always feel good about going out onto the field,” said Tucker a rookie free agent who beat out Cundiff in training camp to win the kicking job. “Not a lot of people get to do this. This is a heck of a lot of fun.”
Denver entered the game with an 11-game winning streak, just three weeks removed from a 34-17 trouncing of the Ravens in Baltimore. But this time, in sub-zero wind chills, in Denver, the Ravens had their team healthy…and looked at times like they were playing with nothing to lose. That’s what being a 9-1/2 point underdog will do to you.
The face of the Baltimore franchise, Lewis, gets at least another week of working out, not that he’s unhappy about that. “I’ve never been a part of a game so crazy in my life,” he said.
And Manning summed it up like this: “I wouldn’t say I was shocked. That’s not the right word. I’m disappointed.” As is all of Denver and their legions of fans. This was the most heartbreaking loss by the Broncos since losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a second-round playoff game at old Mile High Stadium after the 1996 season.
Bailey had a tough game. “I’m not surprised we lost,” Bailey said. “That’s a good football team. What I’m surprised about is how we made it a little easier for them. We preached all week: Don’t give up the deep ball, don’t turn the ball over. That’s the way they’ve been winning games. That’s the way they won tonight.”
“It is my fault,” Broncos safety Rahim Moore said. “I just misjudged it,” Moore said. “I let it go over my head, first of all, and I didn’t do what I do best, which is watch the flight of the ball.” The pass sailed over Moore’s head, right into Jones’ arms. Touchdown: 35-35. Moore was on the verge of tears after the game. “The loss, it was my fault,” Moore said. “I got a little too happy. It was pathetic. My fault. Next time I’ll make that play.”
“That’s the way Flacco throws. He throws them up like that,” Bailey said. “They are hard to judge. I know that’s a play Rahim will make 99 times out of 100, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”
“If they wouldn’t have scored on us on the last play, we’d be in here rejoicing,” Moore said. “So if people don’t like me after that, I’m sorry. That is my fault, and I’m going to take full responsibility for it.”
The offensive line of Baltimore played one of its best games of the year – tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher combined to allow one total sack. Flacco completed 18-of-34 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns. “Maybe people will stop underestimating Joe finally,” McKinnie said. “This could be the turning point in his career. People need to stop underestimating Joe and give him a little more respect.”
Flacco hit Smith for touchdowns of 59 and 32 yards, the latter one tying the game at 21 heading into the halftime. The two teams combined for 28 points in the game’s first 11 minutes, a torrid pace that started with Holliday’s 90-yard punt return touchdown and included Corey Graham’s 39-yard interception return for a touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, trying to tie the game, Flacco drove them down to the Broncos’ 31. However, back-to-back drops — the first by Jacoby Jones on third down and the second by Dennis Pitta on fourth down — turned the ball over on downs. The Ravens did force the Broncos to punt, but they still had their ball on their own 23 with no timeouts and just over a minute to play.
With 30 seconds left and 70 yards to traverse in order to have the opportunity to tie the game and send it into overtime, the Denver faithful, who had been celebrating ever since the Broncos went ahead midway through the fourth quarter, were as unprepared for what was to come as the Denver secondary: Jacoby Jones.
“I told myself that Joe might throw me the ball so I better haul but off the line,” Jones said.
After it was over, running back Ray Rice declared the Ravens “the team of destiny.”
“Just think about it,” he said. “You give up two special teams touchdowns and the way Peyton played, odds says we’re going to lose, but I think we’re the only group of people that believed that we could get it done, and we did it.”
The Ravens rushed for 155 yards on 39 carries, 131 of them gained on 30 carries by Pro Bowl running back Rice.
“Our offense goes through Joe,” said Rice, who scored one touchdown. “So when Joe plays at a high level like that, it makes everything a lot smoother. The way Joe was throwing the ball set up the running game in the second half. We were able to churn up yards in the running game because of the way Joe was on point.”
“Joe made spectacular throws,” rookie offensive guard Kelechi Osemele said. “We all know he has it in him.”
Flacco hasn’t turned the ball over since the first Broncos game.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has now been to the AFC championship game in three of his five seasons and while he abhors comparisons, it’s hard to imagine a more rewarding trip than this.
“That was one of the best football games you’re ever going to see,” Harbaugh said. “That football game did the game of football proud. I’m just proud and grateful to have an opportunity to be part of this game. Our guys did not crack.” Perspectives on any player are going to evolve and that’s part of the process for any young quarterback. You look at one of the greatest to ever play the game that was on the other side today [Manning] and if you look back, the perspective on him as evolved over the years. Joe’s going to be like that, like any other quarterback. I’m proud of him.”
As a result, the Ravens boarded a plane on Saturday evening for a long trip home, knowing that they still have more football left to play.
Will more respect accompany the achievement for Flacco? “Joe has been taking heat for years and years,” Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach said. “He led our team. He showed everybody watching that game that he is an elite quarterback. He went out and proved it.”
“It was amazing. All the crazy stuff that went on — a punt return, a kick return — nobody flinched, man,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “Everybody stayed the path and that was good for us. We’re excited not to be packing our locker room up and going home.”
As for the Broncos, who entered the playoffs as the number one seed, a disappointing end to a spectacular season. Manning was better than anyone would have thought. Each week, this team seemed to get better and more intuitive. If you had said to me would the Ravens beat the Broncos if a) the Ravens were playing on a short week; b) the Ravens had to travel cross-country to play at altitude in Denver; c) the Ravens special teams would give up both a punt return and a kickoff return for touchdowns, the answer would have been absolutely not. But that’s why they play the games. Not one person I spoke to was taking the Ravens to outright win the game. Many were taking the 9-1/2 points, but no sane person said they would win.
Now, Denver licks its wounds, Baltimore prepares for New England or Houston next Sunday evening. Personally, I hope it’s New England, and I hope Baltimore finds a way to upset the Patriots to get to the Super Bowl. I thought Denver would have had a good shot at it…but now, let’s go Ravens!