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Denver • The pass seemingly went higher than it did far.
Not that the Joe Flacco pass didn't go far enough. By the time it landed incredulously in Jacoby Jones' arms with mere seconds left in regulation, the Baltimore Ravens were on their way to delivering the Broncos a crushing, 38-35 two-overtime defeat on a frigid Saturday afternoon turned bone-chilling evening at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
How did the underdog Ravens hand the No. 1-seeded, heavily favored the Broncos the second-most devastating defeat in their history?
It started when Flacco, the always big-armed and now big-game Ravens' quarterback, let the ball rip seemingly out of desperation. The Broncos were up 35-28 thanks to a touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas midway through the fourth quarter.
There was a considerable 70 yards and less than 40 seconds remaining when Flacco threw. Broncos cornerback Tony Carter let the ball go past him. He was playing zone and when Jones ran past on the right sideline. Carter didn't put up a fight.
No problem. Broncos safety Rahim Moore was back for the rescue. Well-positioned. Knock it down and it's fourth down. Moore leaped, reached up and ...
Uh oh. He misjudged the ball. It sailed over his head, right into Jones' arms. Touchdown. 35-35. A bundled and erstwhile uproarious crowd, which had braved more than 4 hours of football amid single-digit temperatures, was stunned into silence.
"The season ended on me," Moore said. "It's my fault."
Said coach John Fox: "You can point to that play, but there were plenty of other [bad] plays."
The Broncos entered the postseason with an 11-game winning streak. They came in as the AFC's No. 1 seed and a 9½-point favorite against the Ravens.
The last time the Broncos played the Ravens, just a month earlier in Baltimore, they jumped to a 31-3 fourth quarter lead before coasting.
And yet, it's the Ravens who are advancing to the AFC championship game next Sunday against either the New England Patriots or Houston Texans.
"The more you put in, the more it does hurt," Manning said. "It matters to a lot of guys in that lockeroom. … It certainly does sting."
This was easily the Broncos most heartbreaking loss since losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a second-round playoff game at Mile High following the 1996 season.
After the Flacco-to-Jones 70-yard touchdown tied it 35-35 with 31 seconds left in regulation, the teams battled through a scoreless first overtime. Ravens cornerback Corey Graham intercepted Manning for the second time near the end of the first overtime. The first pick he returned for a touchdown early in the game.
On the second one, Manning made the ill-advised decision to throw back across his body after rolling right. He didn't have enough zip on the ball to get it to Brandon Stokley.
"I was about to throw it and realized I couldn't throw it, the corner was gong to be there and kind of double clutched," Manning said.
After the Graham interception gave Baltimore the ball at the Broncos' 45, the Ravens moved it just far enough for Justin Tucker to kick a 47-yard, game-winning field goal.
The loss was the first of the season for Trindon Holliday, who deserved better. The 5-foot-5 Holliday had two touchdown returns that should have been the difference in a 35-28 Broncos victory. He brought afterburners to a playoff game that was 13 degrees at game time, 9 degrees with a windchill of -4 at halftime.
Until the postseason, Holliday had a personal team record of 16-0 5-0 with the Houston Texans; 11-0 with the Broncos. Then in the Broncos' first postseason game he had touchdown returns of 90 yards off a punt before his team's first offensive possession and 104 yards on the second half opening kickoff.
Not since Rickey Henderson in his prime has there been so many leadoff home runs. Despite Holliday's heroics, the Broncos struggled to put away the Ravens. The score was 21-21 at halftime as Baltimore got a pick six off a deflected pass and two long touchdown receptions by Torrey Smith, who beat star cornerback Champ Bailey on both.
After Holliday's early punt return, Smith got past Bailey on a post pattern. With no safety help and a perfectly thrown pass by Flacco, Smith raced past Bailey for a 59-yard scoring reception that tied the game, 7-7.
On the Broncos' first offensive series, Manning threw a quick slant to Eric Decker, who was both covered and mugged. The ball deflected in the air and Graham cradled it, then ran 39 yards for a touchdown. It was 14-7 Ravens. Suddenly, the Broncos and their bundled up crowd of 76,603 understood they were in for a game.
Manning remained patient. His offensive line gave him ample protection on nearly every throw, yet Manning took the short, underneath pass the split-second he saw it. He finished his air-control drives with two perfectly thrown red zone touchdown passes 15 yards to Stokley to the right side of the north end zone; 14 yards to Knowshon Moreno to the right side of the north end zone.
It was 21-14 Broncos and they were moving at the 2 minute warning of the first half, first-and-10 at the Ravens' 36. But the timing was off on a key pass between Manning and Demaryius Thomas, the drive stalled and Matt Prater mishit a 52-yard field goal try.
With good field position, Flacco completed back-to-back, first-down passes, then drilled a 32-yard touchdown to Smith, who again beat Bailey.
Instead of 28-14 Broncos, as seemed possible at the 2-minute warning, it was 21-21 at the half. The 14-point swing wasn't nearly as pronounced as the last time these teams met last month in Baltimore, where Broncos cornerback Chris Harris turned a Ravens' goal-to-go into a 98-yard interception return for a 17-0 halftime lead.
But there was no mistaking the Ravens took momentum into halftime. For about 13 seconds.
But even after Holliday, a college 100-meter sprint champion at LSU, sprinted past all Ravens with the second-half kickoff, the Broncos couldn't swat the Ravens away.
Late in the third quarter, the Broncos had third-and-1 from the Baltimore 45. But a holding penalty on right guard Chris Kuper hotly disputed by Fox moved them back and on third-and-long Manning was stripped sacked. The Ravens recovered the fumble and were in business at the Broncos' 37.
A 32-run by Ray Rice gave the Ravens first-and goal, and Baltimore's tailback finished off the drive with a 1-yard lunge.
For all of Holliday's heroics, it was 28-28 entering the fourth quarter. Ravens-Broncos Stats
Baltimore 14 7 7 7 0 3 38
Denver 14 7 7 7 0 0 35
Den • Holliday 90 punt return (Prater kick), 12:14.
Bal • T.Smith 59 pass from Flacco (Tucker kick), 10:31.
Bal • Graham 39 interception return (Tucker kick), 9:49.
Den • Stokley 15 pass from Manning (Prater kick), 4:02.
Den • Moreno 14 pass from Manning (Prater kick), 7:26.
Bal • T.Smith 32 pass from Flacco (Tucker kick), :36.
Den • Holliday 104 kickoff return (Prater kick), 14:47.
Bal • Rice 1 run (Tucker kick), :20.
Den • D.Thomas 17 pass from Manning (Prater kick), 7:11.
Bal • J.Jones 70 pass from Flacco (Tucker kick), :31.
Bal • FG Tucker 47, 13:18.
Attendance • 76,732.
First downs 21 30
Total Net Yards 479 398
Rushes-yards 39-155 41-125
Passing 324 273
Punt Returns 3-22 3-90
Kickoff Returns 4-64 4-171
Interceptions Ret. 2-39 0-0
Comp-Att-Int 18-34-0 28-43-2
Sacked-Yards Lost 1-7 3-17
Punts 8-48.3 5-48.8
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 2-1
Penalties-yards 8-58 10-87
Time of Possession 36:36 40:06
Rushing • Baltimore, Rice 30-131, Pierce 5-14, Flacco 2-7, Leach 1-3, T.Smith 1-0. Denver, Hillman 22-83, Moreno 10-32, Hester 8-11, Manning 1-(minus 1).
Passing • Baltimore, Flacco 18-34-0-331. Denver, Manning 28-43-2-290.
Receiving • Baltimore, Boldin 6-71, T.Smith 3-98, Pitta 3-55, Dickson 3-29, J.Jones 2-77, Leach 1-1. Denver, Decker 6-84, Dreessen 6-46, Tamme 3-44, D.Thomas 3-37, Stokley 3-27, Hillman 3-20, Moreno 2-21, Hester 1-7, Willis 1-4.
Missed Field Goals • Denver, Prater 52 (SH).