DENVER – This wasn't Peyton Manning's fault.
John Fox got a little conservative. Safety Rahim Moore somehow let Jacoby Jones behind him for a miraculous touchdown with less than a minute left. The Ravens put up 479 yards. When a 10-point underdog pulls off an upset like this, blame goes to everyone on the losing side.
But Manning is the quarterback, the one in the Broncos' locker room whose legacy will debated long after he retires. When the story of Ravens 38, Broncos 35 is told, part of it will be that it was just another failure for Manning in a big game.
And there was that interception.
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Manning rolled right late in the first overtime. He has never been great on the move. It was just second-and-6, so a throwaway wasn't too damaging. But he threw back to the middle of the field. The most cerebral quarterback in the NFL couldn't have made a worse decision.
There were no gasps or yells of anguish when Ravens cornerback Corey Graham picked it off. Sports Authority Field went deathly silent, immediately.
"Bad throw. Probably the decision [was] not great either," Manning said. "I thought I had him open. Didn't get enough on it. Trying to make a play, and certainly a throw I'd like to have back."
The Broncos repeatedly corrected questions that used the term "shocked" about their loss. They figured that would be disrespectful to a Ravens team that played very well. But there wasn't any other way to describe the feeling in the stadium or the Broncos locker room afterward. They came into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the AFC and the Super Bowl favorites.
"I had dreams of confetti," outside linebacker Von Miller said.
Miller sat looking into his locker, head down and saying nothing much, in full uniform for about a half hour after the game.
"I wasn't ready to let it go yet," Miller said, still in his uniform pants long after almost all of his teammates had left. "I'm still not ready to let it go."
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Opportunities like the Broncos had this season are hard to come by. That's why this city still cringes whenever the playoff loss to Jacksonville at the end of the 1996 season is brought up. Or why the loss to the Steelers at the end of the 2005 season hurts seven years later. Nobody knows how precious these opportunities are better than Manning.
This is the fifth time one of Manning's teams have gone one-and-done despite hosting their first playoff game. Manning's teams are just 9-11 in the playoffs. A staggering eight of those losses have come when they were favored, according to Covers.com archives. Three of the losses were as double-digit favorites. No quarterback wins or loses games on his own, but fair or not, those playoff disappointments will be part of Manning's history in the game.
All the time Manning spent rehabilitating after his neck surgeries before this season, the effort to transform an entire culture with the Broncos, the amazing All-Pro season to get the Broncos to this point ended without even one playoff win.
"There's no question, it takes a lot of effort and energy," Manning said. "It's a grind. I think as you get older, I'm sure [linebacker Keith] Brooking and [receiver Brandon] Stokley and those guys will tell you that it does require a lot of work and a lot of energy and that's why it is disappointing."
Manning's interception against the Ravens was really bad, but it also came nearly 75 minutes into a game that was tied 35-35. The game was in overtime only because of a mind-blowing mistake deep down the field by Moore with less than a minute to go. If Flacco doesn't make an amazing throw to Jones for a 70-yard score or Moore doesn't let Jones get behind him – because, what other responsibility can he be worried about in that situation? – Manning's three-touchdown game and the Broncos' win adds to his amazing tale this season.
"It shouldn't even have been tied up," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "That's one mistake out of many we made, I can't point the finger at one guy."
Denver has the pieces to be very good again next season, but things change fast in the NFL. Manning will turn 37 years old in March. Although he said he felt good during Saturday's game, the Broncos rarely threw deep in the second half as the wind chill dropped below zero. Almost all of his passes came underneath. He said it was because the Ravens played a lot of two-deep zone, but it's fair to wonder how his hand and arm strength were holding up. He didn't get much on his regrettable last pass of the game.
There's no guarantee Manning, who in this incredible comeback season added a unique argument to any claim he has to being the best quarterback ever, will ever get this close to another Super Bowl again.
"I can't predict tomorrow," Manning said. "I'm just disappointed tonight."
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