DENVER — When it was finally finished — this improbable, unforgettable, and endlessly entertaining playoff game — players in the visiting team’s locker room had no problem tossing around the word “destiny.” For them, there was no other way to explain the Baltimore Ravens’ 38-35 double overtime win over the Denver Broncos.
“Thanks for bearing witness to one of the greatest football games you’re ever going to see,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said to open his postgame news conference.
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.
The Ravens, meanwhile, relied on timely plays from Flacco and cornerback Corey Graham to stay in the game. Graham nabbed a tipped Manning pass in the opening minutes and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. His interception in overtime set up the Ravens’ game-winning drive.
And Flacco, perhaps the NFL’s most mercurial quarterback, lofted one of his best throws of the season in the first quarter, hitting Torrey Smith mid-stride for a 59-yard score. Then, as the Broncos’ were preparing their postgame celebration, Flacco hit Jacoby, shocking the Denver crowd and etching his name into postseason lore.
“It was one of those miraculous plays,” Graham said. “I don’t think it’ll ever be forgotten.”
Flacco finished the game 18 of 34 for 331 yards, three touchdowns — including two to Smith — and no interceptions. With the Ravens just one win away from the Super Bowl, his strong postseason play has buoyed Baltimore’s hopes.
“He grew up today,” Lewis said of Flacco. “To look in this eyes, he had something different about him today.”
“He will lead us to the Super Bowl,” said Rice, who had 131 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. “Our offense, I always say, went through Joe. So when Joe plays at a high level like that, it makes everything a lot smoother.”
Though Baltimore players say they struggled breathing the thin Rocky Mountain air, they were reinvigorated following Flacco’s touchdown pass to Jones, a play that was as simple as it was exquisite. “It’s almost like backyard football,” Harbaugh said.
Overtime was a back-and-forth affair, until Manning threw an interception to Graham. “I thought I had an opening,” Manning said, “and I didn’t get enough on it.”
With only 51 seconds remaining, the Ravens took over possession on the Denver 45-yard line. In inside hand-off to Rice moved Baltimore to the 34 and helped set up Tucker’s game-winning kick.
“We’re gonna have the best plane ride back,” Rice said. “I promise you, this is gonna be a party on the plane. But as soon as we land, we’re gonna be focused on the next team.”