The nightmare of recent playoffs past crept into the Super Bowl dreams of Ravens fans once again.
When Jacoby Jones dropped a pass thrown by Joe Flacco on third-and-five with 3:22 left in this AFC Divisional Championship game, with the Ravens trailing the Denver Broncos by a touchdown, it certainly looked like a third consecutive year that the Ravens would get knocked out of the playoffs just as Flacco was driving his offense for a late score to tie or win the game.
In each of the last two playoff appearances receivers the Ravens had brought in from outside the organization to help get them over the top instead got them sent home. Guys like TJ Houshmandzadeh, Anquan Boldin, and Lee Evans had all dropped passes from Flacco late in playoff games to stall drives and end the Ravens 2010 and 2011 seasons.
And now for the third consecutive year it looked like that would be the case, as Jones’ name would be added to that list. Flacco took the snap from the Broncos 31, rolled left to elude pressure, and threw a ball to an uncovered Jones in the flat that clanked off his hands.
After Dennis Pitta could not haul in an even more difficult fourth-down catch, the Ravens turned the ball back to Peyton Manning and the Broncos with 3:12 left and just two timeouts.
Ray Lewis – a man who knows a thing or two about redemption – sat dejected on the sideline, head bowed. He certainly must have been contemplating the end of a glorious 17-year run. It appeared he would finish his career in a classic, high-scoring playoff game that had been incredibly entertaining for a national TV audience.
But this game would end differently. This year would be different. The Ravens all year had shown resilience, overcoming a rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball and effectively plugging in players who had not even been on the roster to begin the year. They had seen Torrey Smith overcome the death of his brother early in the season and yet still suit up and contribute mightily. They overcame the firing of their offensive coordinator late in the year and the reshuffling of the offensive line just prior to the playoffs.
And now in this critical game, they would overcome yet again. It was time for the Ravens to take advantage of their opponent’s mistakes to and grab a win. It was time for redemption.
The Broncos and Manning were unable to run out the clock and they turned the ball back to the Ravens with just sixty-nine ticks left on the clock. That’s when Jacoby Jones went from goat to hero. The same Jacoby Jones who dropped an early catch, and whose special teams fumbles a year ago as a member of the Houston Texans helped propel the Ravens in the playoffs.
The Broncos’ Rahim Moore inexcusably let Jones get behind him for a seventy-yard touchdown catch with just 0:41 left in regulation, with Flacco scrambling, stepping up, and then falling back and launching a rainbow into Jones’ arms. It tied the game at 35 and sent both teams’ fates into overtime.
The fact that it ever got into overtime was somewhat remarkable. The Ravens could not find the 5’5” return man Trindon Holliday, who scored twice for Denver on a 90-yard punt return and a 104 kick return. They overcame the immortal Peyton Manning being a perfect 3-3 in red zone touchdowns.
They won by taking those punches and coming right back with their own. Neither team ever led by more than seven despite this being a heavy-weight game full of big blows, including a combined 597 yards passing despite temperatures that hovered around 10º F all game long.
The Ravens won because they refused to lose. They were 7-for-17 on third down, matching Manning’s 7-for16 pace. They forced Manning into three turnovers and scored 17 points off those turnovers.
Meanwhile, the Broncos failed to capitalize on the only Ravens turnover, a Flacco fumble at midfield, when Matt Prater missed a 52-yard field goal with 1:16 left in the first half.
The Ravens took advantage of that failure immediately. Flacco responded with three quick completions, including Torrey Smith’s second touchdown of the half matched up one-on-one against the veteran Champ Bailey. Rather than going into the half down 24-14, 33 seconds after Prater’s miss it was knotted at 21.
They repeated this pattern of bouncing back with the big passing play to Jones in the waning seconds of the second half to get into overtime. And once again, they took advantage of a Manning mistake as he rolled right and threw against his body right to Corey Graham for his second pick near midfield.
That set up another redemption story when Justin Tucker nailed his only field goal attempt, a 47-yarder for the win. By converting, the rookie chased another ghost from playoffs past: the shorter, gut-wrenching shank by the kicker he replaced, Billy Cundiff, in the AFC Championship game last year against the Patriots that should have put that game into overtime
In many ways this game was reminiscent of the Ravens’ 2000 Super Bowl run. After those Ravens beat the Broncos in the opening round they traveled to Tennessee as a #4 seed and pulled off a shocking win over the #1 seed Titans in a game that many considered their toughest challenge during that post-season march.
For these Ravens there may just be one more redemption story ahead of them.
Other than a handful of quirky overthrows, Joe Flacco played about as well as a quarterback can play on the biggest stage, in the toughest conditions, matching and eventually surpassed the much hyped Manning. While Manning threw two picks and fumbled once, Flacco had no picks and just the one fumble on a botched snap exchange. Joe finished 18 for 34 for 331 yards and three TDs, good enough for a 116 QB Rating compared to Manning’s 88. Beyond the numbers, he was clutch under pressure on third downs and with the clock winding down in both halves. He continues to improve with pocket awareness, even when taking a sack or throwing it away rather than throwing the ball into traffic. It is hard to overlook how effective he is throwing the long ball.
Running Backs: B
Ray Rice and Vonta Leach had a bit of trouble picking the right holes against the NFL’s second ranked defense. The zone-blocking scheme created some cutback opportunities but the Broncos, who are quite accustomed to seeing the scheme in practice, closed quickly when Rice hesitated. His best run was a 32-yarder straight up the middle, which allowed him to finish off with a score on three consecutive carries from inside the five. The Ravens kept calling his number however and eventually Rice finished with 131 yards on 30 carries. That also included a critical first down on a sprint draw at the end of the first overtime to get the ball into field goal range. Bernard Pierce struggled with cut backs and finished with 14 yards on 5 carries after leaving with a leg injury.
Wide Receivers: A-
The Denver playoff nightmare will be the one Champ Bailey sees of Torrey Smith in his dreams. Smith outclassed the veteran with two long catches of 59 and 32 yards for touchdowns and should have had a third if Flacco didn’t overthrow him breaking open deep over the middle. Smith finished with 98 yards on three catches and missed another chance down the sideline when he couldn’t get his feet down. Anquan Boldin was a steady productive presence with six catches for 71 yards. Jones added two catches, including the iconic game-tying score at the end.
Tight Ends: A-
Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta were both extremely efficient, going 3-for-4 and 3-for-5, respectively, and wracking up a combined 84 yards respectively. They ran crisp routes and dominated the intermediate and middle parts of the field. Pitta’s high-rising catch over Jim Leonard on third and 13 early in overtime helped the Ravens dig out from their own 3-yard line and preserve the later chance for the win.
Offensive Line: A
Bryant McKinnie and Kelechi Osemele shut down the vaunted pass rush of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, giving Flacco a chance to make plays all day. Marshal Yanda made some huge blocks, including springing Rice on both of his long runs and pulling left and together with Leach putting Miller on his back for Rice’s TD plunge.
A week ago Corey Graham tipped a pass that Cary Williams picked off and returned up the sideline. This week it was Chykie Brown returning the favor, getting a well-timed hand around Eric Decker to tip a pass that Graham picked and returned for a score, putting the Ravens up 14-7. Brandon Stokley then beat Graham to the corner of end zone to knot the score at 14. Graham got the last laugh when his pick in overtime set up the winning field goal.
Chykie Brown had his down moments, including missing Decker in the open field. He also didn’t get away with a defenseless receiver hit on tight end Joel Dreessen as he lowered a shoulder and aimed for the midsection but connected with helmet as Dreessen was coming down with a catch.
That close call was followed by an even more suspect defensive holding call on Cary Williams, who was guilty of resting a hand on Damaryius Thomas’ shoulder, but not impeding the receiver. Together, the two penalties on the Ravens corners helped set up what looked at the time to be the winning scoring drive from the Broncos in the fourth quarter. Williams was assigned to Thomas most of the day and did a nice job on the dangerous receiver, who was held to three catches on seven targets for just 37 yards, but one TD.
Ed Reed missed the tackle on Thomas as he bounced off the safety and scored to put Denver ahead 35-28 with 7:11 left in the game. He continues to thump without the ability to wrap up. Bernard Pollard was quiet, with just two tackles and a pass defended.
Ray Lewis can’t cover receivers in space but he sure is a tackling machine between the ends. He finished with 17 tackles and controlled the line of scrimmage. Terrell Suggs stepped up his game with ten tackles and two big sacks. Suggs was flagged for hands to the face of tackle Ryan Clady on an iffy call.
Paul Kruger wasn’t far behind in his contributions with a fumble recovery, two quarterback hits and a tackle for a loss. They were able to keep enough pressure on Manning to help force throws he didn’t want to make. Dannell Ellerbe was excellent in coverage even on a touchdown throw to Knowshon Moreno over him in the corner of the end zone. Ellerbe continues to be the most explosive threat in the middle of the field. Other than getting burned when failing to hold the edge, Courtney Upshaw was steady in carrying out his responsibilities.
Defensive Line: B
Pernell McPhee was credited with the strip of Manning recovered by Kruger. Haloti Ngata at times was blown back, but at times controlled the line, including throwing Chris Kuper aside for a fierce tackle for a loss. He also was credited with a quarterback hit. Although he was only credited with two tackles, Arthur Jones was disruptive. Terrence Cody was flagged for an obvious hands to the face penalty.
Special Teams: D
A normally reliable special teams unit put the Ravens in 14-point hole that they overcame only through resilience and converting turnovers into points. The Broncos piled up 261 return yards on three punts and four kickoffs, including a punt and kick returned by Trindon Holliday for touchdowns.
After a decent first drive stalled, Sam Koch boomed a 52-yard punt down the left side to the Denver 10; inexplicably, eight Ravens defenders ran to the right and Holliday busted a 90 yard return straight past a diving Brendon Ayanbadejo.
Jacoby Jones then immediately muffed a kick to put the offense on their own five. That was followed by Josh Bynes running into Tandon Doss returning a punt. Then Holliday burned Ayanbadejo again on his kick return for a touchdown to start the second half.
The teams unit got it together in overtime. Jimmy Smith made a nice open field tackle on Holliday to flip the field on Denver, pinning them at their five. And then Justin Tucker came in and nailed the winning 47-yarder.
When you go on the road as ten point underdogs and immediately fall behind on special teams mistakes, it is difficult to overcome, to say the least. The staff had the team believing they could win and should be credited for a nice team victory.
Offensively, credit Jim Caldwell for sticking with the run and good early use of tight ends to take advantage of the entire field before striking deep. The decision to pick on the respected Champ Bailey in single coverage obviously paid off. To put up 38 points on the league’s second ranked defense is a feat.
Defensively, the Ravens gave up uncharacteristic red zone scores to an uncharacteristically good quarterback, but they did hold the Broncos to just three offensive touchdowns and took the ball away three times to help fuel the offense.
It was curious to see what Bill Vinovich’s crew let go versus what they called tightly. They allowed a lot of shoving by defensive backs, and Cary Williams got away with tripping Thomas on a ball that would have been a touchdown. Later he was called for pass interference when he merely rested a hand on Thomas’ shoulder.
The crew was quick to call hands to the face all over the field, but allowed a lot of questionable hits on both quarterbacks after the ball was released. Yet they were quick to flag Dannell Ellerbe for a facemask. Ellerbe did have a hand on the mask but didn’t yank it as the rule requires. They seemed to recognize this with an immediate make-up call when Chris Kuper was called for holding on a play when Ma’ake Kemoeatu was simply spinning to the ground.
It was embarrassing to see a Jacob Hester run quickly signaled as a first down, only to require measurement and eventually a challenge by Harbaugh on a call that stood, though the ball never appeared to reach the sticks to begin with.
The only thing more frustratingly bad than watching NFL officiating is listening to Dan Dierdorf on CBS give his interpretation of NFL officiating. Dierdorf is quick to express a point of view on what happened on a particular play and he’s rarely right, but that doesn’t stop him from sticking to his story even as replay after replay shows a different story. His broadcast partner, Greg Gumbel, doesn’t bother to bail out Dierdorf at this point in their tenure together.
Gumbel does a good job of setting the stage, if nothing else. Going to a long commercial break, with the score tied at 14, Gumbel announced, “the first quarter has been a dandy, hard to believe we have three more to play.”
Indeed. Little did anyone know it would be five more quarters before a shocked TV audience would see the Ravens take home the victory, spoiling a much anticipated Peyton Manning-Tom Brady AFC championship game.