It was a wild game out west. One that needed more than five quarters to decide, making this the 4th longest game in NFL history. The AFC Divisional Playoff game was as entertaining as it was counter to conventional wisdom of how the game was expected to go. For the Denver Broncos and their sensational quarterback, it’ll have to be next year.
Ultimately it was Broncos who were done in by their mistakes. The team had struggled with turnovers all season, but no one clad in orange expected it to be Peyton Manning‘s ill-advised throw back across the field late in the first overtime period that would be the dagger and the play to set up rookie kicker Justin Tucker‘s game winning kick for the Baltimore Ravens.
The mistakes weren’t just on Manning, nor on were they limited to the Broncos.
John Harbaugh‘s touted Ravens’ special teams had no answer for Denver Broncos’ electrifying return man Trindon Holliday, two successful ground games were largely unable to establish any consistency as temperatures hovered in the teens with a sub-zero windchill, and future Hall-of-Fame cornerback Champ Bailey was beaten for two Torrey Smith touchdown receptions.
Not exactly how it was supposed to go down, and the Broncos know they missed an opportunity to move on to the AFC Championship game.
“I’m not surprised that we lost,” said Bailey, “that’s a good football team. I’m surprised at how easy we made it for them.”
Denver’s vaunted secondary had not allowed a 300-yard passer all season until allowing Joe Flacco to do what Flacco does best — go up top. Touchdown passes of 59, 32, and 70 yards overwhelmed a secondary that was roughed up all afternoon. Bailey was the victim of the first two touchdowns, one coming with just 43 seconds left in the half.
The real blunder though, would come at the end of the regulation. The Ravens were fighting the clock with no timeouts and 1:09 left, the Ravens brought their ball to their own 30. Ravens’ kick returner/wide receiver Jacoby Jones ran a vertical route down the far sideline. Broncos’ cornerback Tony Carter released him to safety Rahim Moore who badly misplayed the towering bomb from Flacco. Moore whiffed on the ball allowing Jones to make an easy touchdown grab.
“It’s completely my fault,” Moore lamented. “I apologize to the all the fans, the people who love the Denver Broncos. This isn’t what they desired.”
The Broncos were given huge lifts on their first touches of each half when Holliday became the first player in NFL history to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. His 90-yard punt return in the first quarter opened the scoring for the Broncos, followed by his 104-yard kickoff return for a score at the start of the second half. Both were NFL record in length; both saw Holliday scampering untouched as he made his way to pay dirt.
It was a good thing for the Broncos, too. Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense looked uncharacteristically out of sync for good portions of the game. Both the running game and the passing game ended up with far fewer yards per attempt than their regular season averages. Similarly, the swarming Denver defense did not record a sack of Flacco until overtime after leading the league in sacks over the regular season.
Yet both teams were able to overcome mistakes and adversity to exchange blows reminiscent of playoff games in the late 80′s and early 90′s, an era in which it was John Elway under center. So many times Broncos fans witnessed a game that wouldn’t be decided until the final snap. Such was the case on this afternoon. It just didn’t have the Mile High Miracle feel at the end.
After the Holliday return for Denver, Smith’s long touchdown reception and Corey Graham‘s 39-yard interception return of a tipped Manning pass, the Broncos were trailing for the first time since week 13 against Tampa Bay. Manning and the Broncos were content to settle for short to intermediate and do what they’ve done the entire season — methodically move the ball down the field.
As Manning spread the ball around to his receivers (28 receptions to 9 different Broncos), two wonderful over-the-shoulder grabs buoyed the offense. One went to Brandon Stokley who’s catch in a tight window brought back memories of his go-ahead grab against Chargers in week 6, and one to Knowshon Moreno who beat the mismatched coverage by Ravens linebacker Dannelle Ellerbe by running a beautiful stop-and-go route to haul in the Manning strike.
The Broncos defense had their most impressive stand of the game forcing a three-and-out, and it looked like the Broncos were going to add to their 21-14 advantage. While by far not the deciding factor in the game, Matt Prater‘s foot hit the ground well before striking the ball. No doubt he was trying to put a little extra leg into a long field goal with a rock solid ball in cold conditions, but the ball fell well short. Not only did it fail to add to the lead, but it gave the Ravens a short field with 1:10 left in the half.
Again, the Denver secondary was taken advantage of with Flacco’s streaking wideouts. Flacco lofted an under-thrown pass to Smith toward the endzone who adjusted perfectly and again beat Bailey by going up for the grab.
A potential lead at halftime quickly became a 21-21 tie.
The freezing temperatures appeared to cost many fans the opportunity put the buzz back into the stadium, as many lingering on the concourses trying to stay warm missed Holliday’s second half kickoff return for a score.
Both team exchanged touchdowns, blunders, and defensive stops in for the rest of the third quarter. Flacco’s had a bad snap exchange with his center was recovered by veteran linebacker Keith Brooking, while Manning lost a fumble late in the quarter to set up Baltimore’s equalizer — a Ray Rice 1-yard run.
Until the fourth quarter, the Broncos receivers had been finding plenty of open space in the Baltimore zone, but were having a hard time finding open space to accelerate. That’s when offensive coordinator Mike McCoy went to his old bag of tricks — a screen pass to Demaryius Thomas who stepped out of a tackle and broke to the endzone for the go-ahead score. Broncos Country had to believe this was the game-winner, especially after the Ravens unsuccessfully converted on fourth-down on the ensuing drive.
The Ravens, expecting run and getting it, were able to stop the clock and force a Broncos punt. After scrambling out of trouble for 7 yards, Flacco heaved his homerun ball in Jones’ direction. Moore misplayed the ball thinking he could deflect the pass. Instead it was the fifth tie of the contest. What appeared to be a certain Broncos’ win, quickly turned into an overtime that was just as highly contested as regulation.
Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley took some of the blame off Moore’s play saying after the game, “It’s not his fault at all. That’s just one play in a long game. As an offense, we had a chance to put the game away and we didn’t do it.”
Baltimore won the toss and elected to receive to begin the additional period. Neither team was able to move the ball effectively, as the teams swapped punts before it looked as if Denver cornerback Chris Harris was about to do it to Flacco again. On third-and-three from their own 34, Harris made a diving attempt at a pass intended for Anquan Boldin on a crossing route. Harris was able to put both hands on the ball before falling to the turf and losing control. It would have been a sensational grab, instead it adds to the list of missed chances in a hard-fought game.
The Ravens defense, however, was finally able to capitalize. With the Broncos driving, Manning was flushed from the pocket to his right, threw back across the field, and was intercepted once again by Graham. Manning had gotten away with this type of throw earlier in the season, but that was to a wide open Stokely in the endzone.
“That’s the old ‘rule number one’ you never do,” Manning said after that completion. This time, though, the Broncos would pay the price.
One quick 11-yard burst up the middle by Rice, and the game-winning field goal was set up for the Ravens and Tucker, who would drill a no-doubter from 47-yards out, sending the Broncos to their most bitter defeat since their shocking loss to the Jaguars in the 1996 divisional game. That one will be remembered for its ambush feel. This one will be remembered as the one that got away.