The road to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII made a stop in Denver, Colorado but for the Baltimore Ravens that journey continues for at least another week in what may go down as one of the greatest NFL Playoff games in recent memory.
Surviving two touchdowns from Trindon Holliday in the Broncos return game, the Ravens knotted the game up at 35 with :31 seconds left in regulation after Jacoby Jones slipped behind the Broncos secondary and Joe Flacco found him for a 70-yard touchdown.
The fourth-longest playoff game in NFL history stayed deadlocked at 35 through the first overtime period and into the start of the 2nd OT, trading possessions back and forth until Peyton Manning was intercepted for a 2nd time by Corey Graham to put the Ravens in Denver territory. Four runs by Ray Rice later set up Justin Tucker for the game-winning 47-yard field goal with 13:18 left in double overtime to send the Ravens to consecutive AFC Championship games and the third in five years under John Harbaugh.
Joe Flacco was very comfortable in the pocket and had time to make strong throws all over the field. Flacco completed just under 53% of his passes, but fully aware of time he had in the pocket. The line blocked well, and Joe moved easy making some really strong intermediate throws. When the pocket collapsed, Flacco was able to step into the pocket to deliver some big time and now big money throws downfield. He was clutch on third downs, that cannot be overlooked.
Flacco finished with 331 yards and three touchdowns. The two touchdown tosses to Torrey Smith were perfection as they were busy picking on Bronco corner Champ Bailey. His third touchdown strike will be talked about in Baltimore for years. Flacco felt pressure on both sides, slid into the pocket and lofted the pass to Jones behind the Broncos secondary for the score.
In a calendar year, Joe Flacco has outplayed both Tom Brady and now Peyton Manning in the playoffs. That’s saying something.
Running Backs: B
Credit the Ravens, they stuck with the run and grinded things out against a pretty tough Denver run defense. Ray Rice carried the ball 30 times for 131 yards and a touchdown that tied the game at 28 late in the 3rd quarter. Rice had some tough runs in the 2nd half that got the Ravens first downs. It was a gutsy performance from Rice who fumbled twice in the win over the Colts last week, his longest run of the day, 32 yards, set up his touchdown and later a designed draw that the Ravens ran perfectly to set them up in field goal range.
Bernard Pierce limped off the field with an injury late in the 1st half and did not return. He was sure to get more than the five carries he received but Denver did a solid job of bottling him up on cutback runs.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A
Last week it was the Anquan Boldin show, this week, the Torrey Smith show. Three catches, 98 yards and two touchdowns. On the first score, Torrey outran Champ Bailey and on the second, he outmaneuvered him. If he had gotten his feet in bounds, Smith would have had three scores he was that good. Jacoby Jones had one catch, that one being the biggest score of the season for the Ravens.
Anquan Boldin led the team with six catches on the day. His last catch of the day was his toughest, having a defender draped on him, reached out and corralled the ball into his chest while staying in bounds.
Dennis Pitta had three catches for 55 yards and Ed Dickson three catches for 24 yards. They patrolled the middle of the field and made a living in their intermediate routes. Denver really had no answer for it. Pitta’s leaping catch on a crucial 3rd and 13 over Jim Leonhard gave the offense some breathing room as they started that drive early in the first over time near their own endzone.
Offensive Line: B+
What an outstanding job from this line knowing the talent that was on the other side of the ball. For the 2nd straight week, the line allowed just one sack on Joe Flacco and that was a half sack from Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. Marshal Yanda has a huge mean streak and the line is better for it. He’s just a flat out mauler. He opened a gigantic hole on the 32-yard run by Ray Rice, his longest of the day. Then later in OT, gave Ray Rice a nudge forward to make sure he got him a first down.
Defensive Line: B-
The line play struggled in the 1st half as Peyton Manning had plenty of time getting the football to his receivers because they weren’t even sniffing around in the same vicinity of where Manning was. Credit Dean Pees with making the correct adjustments, getting the line to collapse the pocket. The Broncos had trouble with the way the Ravens rotated players in and out.
Pernell McPhee may have had his best game all year, finishing with a sack and a forced fumble that Paul Kruger recovered. Art Jones had a solid game, giving Manning pressure in his face, though he finished with two tackles. Haloti Ngata and Ma’ake Kemoeatu were strong in the middle and bunched up the run well. The Broncos started to stretch their runs to get away from the Ravens strength inside. Ngata looked very healthy and ticked off; he threw 303 pound offensive lineman Chris Kuper aside with one arm to make a tackle on the running back.
The linebackers made tackles, but a lot of them were 10-15 yards downfield. They were stronger in run coverage but struggled in pass coverage as Manning found his dump off to the backs, they were able to evade Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe. Ellerbe looked fast and was needed as he finished with nine tackles. Lewis finished with 17 total tackles. He may have lost a step, but seemed to be all over the field and near the football.
Terrell Suggs started slow but had a dominant 2nd half, finishing the day with two sacks, 10 tackles and a forced fumble.
The corners got their hands on the football early as Chykie Brown deflected a pass intended for Eric Decker and Corey Graham snatched it and took it to the house for the touchdown. Later in the game, Graham had his 2nd interception on a pass where Manning left the pocket to his right and underthrew the receiver.
Cary Williams drew Demaryius Thomas and while he scored a touchdown, Williams did a solid job against him. He played physical and stayed tight on Thomas. Eric Decker gave the secondary problems again, Chykie Brown was burned in the open field, missing a tackle on Decker. Brown was also called for a penalty on a helmet-to-helmet hit on Broncos tight end Joel Dreessen.
Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard had quiet days. Reed whiffed on a potential tackle on Thomas’ touchdown and Pollard had just two tackles and a pass defended.
Special Teams: F
This unit nearly cost the Ravens the game until Joe Flacco’s miracle toss down the field for the game-tying touchdown to Jacoby Jones. They were gashed by Trindon Holliday for a 90-yard punt return and 104-yard kickoff return for touchdowns. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg will have some work to do to get ready for next Sunday’s game because when only one player touches a returner and gets chased by a punter, bad things usually happen.
As I mentioned in my Playoff Primer, this game ultimately could come down to a game-winning field goal attempt and rookie Justin Tucker found himself in that exact situation. We all saw he had ice water in his veins, nailing the winner from 47 yards out. He could probably hear the eruption from fans cheering in Baltimore all the way in Denver.
The unit overall still gets an F.
Jim Caldwell overall had a very solid gameplan, mixing run and pass effectively. Even with Flacco throwing the football well and Bernard Pierce banged up, they stuck to Ray Rice and the running game. We saw more rollouts to both Flacco’s left and right that worked, creative rubs and picks with receivers that led to yardage. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey struggled in coverage and the Ravens feasted on it. Caldwell believed in the gameplan and didn’t abandon it even when the Ravens found themselves playing from behind.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens made adjustments in the 2nd half and the defensive line started to push the tempo and get pressure on Manning and that led to turnovers which cost the Broncos. Special teams took a step backwards in this game. Jerry Rosburg has work to do getting this unit back on track. A punt return of 90 yards and a kickoff return of 104 yards is embarrassing.
A game that Ravens fans will remember where they were when Justin Tucker kicked the game-winning field goal. It will go down in the annuals of Ravens history as perhaps one of the greatest NFL playoff games of all-time. The Ravens just refuse to die and settle for anything short of getting guys like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed among others to the Super Bowl and win.
Baltimore was 9 1/2 point underdogs, but these situations are where the Ravens excel. They relish the opportunity to be counted out and it drives them. Time and time again, we’ve seen this team quiet the critics and on a bitterly cold afternoon in Denver, they did it again.
They now await the winner of Houston and New England to determine the next trip on the road to New Orleans.
Matt Lund is a contributor for BaltimoreSportsReport.com and co-host of the BSR Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @MattCLund.