The Baltimore Ravens have reached the AFC Championship Game for the third time in the last five seasons after rookie Justin Tucker's 47-yard field goal gave the underdogs a 38-35 double overtime win over the No. 1-seed Denver Broncos in Saturday's divisional playoff game.
Tucker's field goal came after Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning made a rare and costly mistake, throwing late over the middle in an attempt to squeeze the ball in to slot receiver Brandon Stokley. The throw was intercepted by Ravens cornerback Corey Graham -- his second interception of the game -- at the Broncos' 45-yard line.
"He was trying to make a play. I think there were a lot of different plays that were costly," Broncos head coach John Fox said of Manning's interception.
Manning's interception will certainly be scrutinized, and deservedly so, but the case could be made that the game never should have reached overtime. The Broncos led 35-28 at the two-minute warning. Facing a 3rd-and-7 play, Fox elected to hand the ball off to rookie Ronnie Hillman rather than allow Manning, a legitimate MVP candidate, to throw the ball for a first down that would have sealed the win and another home game for the Broncos. The Ravens defense stopped Hillman short of the first-down marker and the Broncos were forced to give the ball back to Baltimore with just over a minute remaining.
A few plays into their next possession, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco heaved the ball towards wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who was allowed to drift behind Broncos safety Rahim Moore, who made a flailing attempt to intercept the ball, only to have it land in Jones' hands for a 70-yard game-tying touchdown with 38 seconds remaining. Even with 30 seconds remaining on the clock, and two timeouts in their back pocket, Fox again took a conservative approach, having Manning take a knee and play for overtime.
Manning completed 28-of-43 pass attempts for 290 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday, but will be haunted this offseason by a pair of interceptions the Ravens converted into 10 points. The first interception was not on Manning as Graham snared a tipped ball and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter to give the Ravens a 14-7 lead. The second interception was squarely on Manning, who lamented the play after the game.
"Bad throw. Decision probably wasn't great either...certainly a throw I'd like to have back", said Manning. "We really have put in a lot of hard work...It definitely stings ending on a loss like we had tonight."
Denver's loss, their first since Oct. 7, also squandered a record-setting performance from return specialist Trindon Holliday, who set NFL playoff records with a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter and a 104-yard kick return for a touchdown to open the third quarter. In addition to those returns being the longest punt and kick return in NFL post-season history, Holliday is now the first player in NFL playoff history to return both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same game.
Flacco completed 18-of-34 pass attempts for 331 yards and three long touchdowns, each of which figure to help the 2008 first-round pick out of Delaware secure a lucrative contract extension in the offseason. After the Ravens fell behind 7-0 on Holliday's 90-yard punt return, Flacco led the Ravens on a four-play, 94-yard drive that ended with a 59-yard touchdown to wide receiver Torrey Smith. Flacco and Smith would connect for a 32-yard touchdown in the final minute of the second half.
As was the case in last Sunday's 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts, Anquan Boldin was Flacco's preferred target, catching six passes for 71 yards. Smith had three receptions for a game-high 98 yards and the two scores, while Jones finished with two receptions and 77 yards. Baltimore's running game did a solid job as Ray Rice had 30 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown as the Ravens churned out 155 yards on the ground.
Though the Ravens allowed 35 points, the most points the franchise has allowed in a playoff game, two of the five touchdowns the Broncos scored came on special teams and cannot be pinned on a defense that actually did a decent job of slowing down Manning and a Denver offense that ranked fourth in total offense and second in scoring offense during the regular season. On Saturday, the Broncos offense produced the same 398 yards of total offense it averaged during the regular season, but that production came over five periods.
With the win, the Ravens are now 7-4, and 5-4 on the road, in the post-season under head coach John Harbaugh. The Ravens will travel to face either the Houston Texans or New England Patriots next Sunday. During the regular season, Baltimore defeated the Patriots 31-30 at home and suffered a 43-13 loss to the Texans on the road.
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