Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco faced a seven-point deficit when he heaved up a third-down prayer with only 41 seconds left in the game. As the Broncos defense converged, the game appeared to be over. High above the playing field, Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome had already left his seat and was heading downstairs.
Flacco stepped up in the pocket, cocked his arm back and let loose. And there it all was, spiraling through the cold, thin air. Five seasons of disappointing playoff runs. The silly debate about being an “elite quarterback.” The final chapter of Ray Lewis’s career. Oh, and the Ravens’ fading Super Bowl hopes.
As Broncos fans began making plans for next week’s AFC championship game, Denver cornerback Tony Carter and safety Rahim Moore somehow allowed Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones to slip past. The sixth-year wide receiver sprinted down the sideline and saw a gift from above. The implausible 70-yard touchdown tied the score and forced overtime. Newsome returned to his seat. The Broncos settled into reality.
Finally, more than four hours after kickoff, rookie place kicker Justin Tucker drilled a 47-yard field in the second overtime to send Baltimore to the AFC championship game for the third time in five years. The Ravens will face the winner of Sunday’s matchup between New England and Houston. Baltimore beat the Patriots at home in September and lost at the Texans a month later.
While a clutch kick secured their spot Saturday, the Ravens’ playoff run last year ended in New England when former kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard attempt in the closing seconds that could have tied the score. Saturday’s dramatic finish might’ve seemed even more improbable. After all, the Broncos were riding an 11-game winning streak, saw two historic touchdowns from return specialist Trindon Holliday and three touchdown passes from Peyton Manning.
“Just think about it, you give up two special teams touchdowns and the way Peyton played — the odds say we’re gonna lose,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Added Flacco, whose team trailed on four different occasions: “I don’t know if I’m amazed, but it was pretty incredible.”
Temperatures hovered around 10 degrees much of the game, but the two teams gave fans plenty to feel warm about early. Both teams found the end zone quickly, and the wild opening sequence featured touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams.
Holliday fielded a first-quarter punt and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown, marking a postseason record. He later opened the second half by taking the kickoff four yards deep in the end zone. A former college sprinter who was released by Houston in October and signed by the Broncos one day later, Holliday didn’t slow down for 104 yards. It marked the longest postseason return ever and made Holliday the first player in postseason history to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same game.