For John Elway, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, their dream season ended in utter heartbreak. More specifically though, it was the way it ended -- 38-35 in double overtime, the fourth longest game in NFL history, at the hands of two Manning picks and a torched defense -- that was so surprising.
To be sure, these types of things happen in the NFL. Home field advantage is a plus, but not a sure thing, even when you have a premier quarterback. Remember, it was just two years ago that Tom Brady and New England -- having already blown out the Jets that season -- were a touchdown favorite at home against them and lost in the divisional round. When the Broncos hung 34 on Baltimore during a Week 15 victory, Manning wasn't pressured, nor was he ever not in command. The same can be said for his entire 2012 season.
Saturday night however, was a completely different story. Shockingly uncomfortable in the pocket, he had a crucial fumble along with the two picks, including a questionable decision to throw across his body late in OT, which ultimately resulted in Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal. The MVP candidate had a measly QBR of 58.1, his second lowest total of the season and lowest at home. Denver, however, who hadn't lost since October 15th, can hardly put all of the fault on Manning.
As noted, Denver's defense has been an enormous strength; physical enough to play the run and get after the passer while talented enough on the backend to limit big plays through the air. Both its passing and rushing defense ranked third in the NFL, with points against slotted at fourth. Cornerback Champ Bailey however, who was just named to his twelfth Pro Bowl, was lit up repeatedly by the burner Torrey Smith, who had touchdown catches of 59 and 32 yards in single coverage.
Meanwhile, the Broncos' sensational duo of defensive ends Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil -- who combined for 28.5 sacks in 2012 -- were shut out until the extra session. All in all, Denver led the league in total sacks this year, amassing 52 total. The complete lack of pressure on Joe Flacco was both crucial and highly puzzling for a team that prides itself in that category. Even worse, the game was all but over before Flacco's 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones tied the game at 35, a play in which Broncos safety Rahim Moore inexplicably whiffed at the ball in mid-air and allowed Jones to get behind him. And, let us not forget that Denver head coach John Fox elected to have Manning -- the king of last second drives -- take a knee with a healthy 31 seconds on the clock in regulation.
Clearly, we can blame Fox, or Bailey, or Miller, or even Manning -- who has yet to notch a playoff win since making the Super Bowl in 2010 -- but we can, and should, also give a tremendous amount of credit to the Ravens, who entered the game as 9.5 point underdogs.
After a brutal three-game skid at home that very easily could have carried over to the playoffs, John Harbaugh's group somehow came together when it mattered the most. Having a terrific game plan is one thing, but executing it to near perfection seldom occurs in this league. Save for the special team miscues and some typical Manning antics, Baltimore managed to do just that. Now, as fate would have it, the Ravens are just one Patriots win away from an AFC title rematch in Foxborough. And, for Ray Lewis and his farewell tour, he gets to play some more football.
Well, for at least one more week that is.
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