Saturday's playoff matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos featured any number of interesting subplots, as two future first-ballot Hall of Famers met in the cold with a trip to the AFC championship game on the line.
For the visiting Ravens, Saturday's game meant that linebacker Ray Lewis could be taking the field for the last time, which led to quite a bit of looking back on his storied career, including this tidbit from ESPN Stats and Info that points out just how vital Lewis has been to the team's playoff success.
(ELIAS)Most total tackles in Ravens postseason history: Ray Lewis 173, Terrell Suggs 52— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 12, 2013
For the Broncos, the chilly weather in the Mile High City presented a potential roadblock to the team's 12th straight victory, for as the NFL's Twitter feed mentioned, 36-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning has had his share of struggles in his career when the thermometer drops.
However, that stat didn't stop the NFL Network's Steve Mariucci from predicting big things from Manning against the Ravens.
Sure enough, the Broncos drew first blood, but Manning wasn't even on the field when it happened, as a 90-yard punt return from Trindon Holliday put Denver up 7-0 and gave Paul Domowitch of The Philadelphia Daily News an opportunity to tweet an interesting tidbit about Holliday.
Trindon Holliday was only unbeaten player in league this year. Was 5-0 with Texans, cut, then 11-0 with Broncos.— Paul Domowitch (@pdomo) January 12, 2013
Holliday's return also made his quarterback a very happy man, according to BuzzFeed Sports:
GIF: That Broncos punt-return TD made Peyton Manning jump up and down like a giddy child. twitpic.com/bunx3v— BuzzFeed Sports (@BuzzFeedSports) January 12, 2013
However, to say that the momentum took a quick swing would be an understatement. On the following drive, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco found wideout Torrey Smith for a long scoring strike, and then a Peyton Manning interception was returned for a touchdown by Corey Graham.
Two touchdowns in the span of 42 seconds gave Baltimore a quick 14-7 lead, and that outburst led to more than a few from fans of both squads.
Uh oh!!Quick turn around in the football game. Peyton Manning needs to answer Ravens touchdowns. #DenverBroncos— Jon Shonebarger (@JonShonebarger) January 12, 2013
The excitement didn't stop there in a first quarter that was the equivalent of two prizefighters trading haymakers in the middle of the ring. Manning led the Broncos right back down the field, and his game-tying pass to wide receiver Brandon Stokley had the folks at SportsCenter waxing nostalgic.
Just like the good 'ol days ... Peyton Manning to Brandon Stokley for 15 yard TD. We got a ballgame in Denver.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 12, 2013
The frenetic pace of the game slowed a bit after that, but about midway through the second quarter, Manning found running back Knowshon Moreno from 14 yards out to put Denver ahead 21-14.
GIF: Passes don't get any better than this Peyton Manning touchdown to Knowshon Moreno. twitpic.com/buo7t3— BuzzFeed Sports (@BuzzFeedSports) January 12, 2013
That made Manning 12-of-17 for 151 yards and two touchdowns with an interception at that point in the game, and as the Sports Pickle (I don't name 'em, folks) mentioned, the cold certainly didn't seem to be hurting Manning's accuracy any.
Peyton Manning is throwing through tiny dollhouse windows.— SportsPickle (@sportspickle) January 12, 2013
A missed Matt Prater field goal gave the Ravens excellent field position just inside the two-minute warning, and the Ravens made the most of it, with Flacco finding Torrey Smith for his second score of the afternoon.
That reception gave Smith two catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, and that led to my requisite tweet from the imaginary mind of John Madden.
Torrey Smith taking advantage of new Colorado laws by continually smoking Champ Bailey.— Faux John Madden (@FauxJohnMadden) January 12, 2013
The two teams headed to the locker room knotted at 21, and ESPN's Mike Greenberg nicely summed up a fantastic first half that was easily the most exciting 30 minutes of football in the playoffs to this point.
It was something of a surprise that the Ravens were able to hang 21 points on the Broncos in the first half, and as Paul Klee of the Colorado Springs Gazette pointed out, it had been some time since a team had that much offensive success against Denver in a game, much less half of one.
The second half started just as crazily as the first one did.
Trindon Holliday, the man who hasn't lost a game this season and returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown in the first half, wasn't done yet.
The Ravens seemed set to answer that score before a fumbled snap gave the ball back to Denver, and then a costly penalty on Cary Williams both negated a strip-sack and gave the Broncos an automatic first down.
Baltimore escaped that gaffe without further damage, and the team got a huge break when a play that could have been called an incomplete pass was ruled a fumble that the Ravens recovered, a call that Fox Sports' Mike Pereira agreed with.
I agree with Vinovich. Tuck rule states that if player loses possession after he tucks the ball back into his body it's a fumble.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) January 13, 2013
The Ravens capitalized on the turnover, and after a Ray Rice touchdown run, the third quarter ended just as it began, setting up a great finish to the most exciting game of the postseason to date.
The Broncos opened the fourth quarter pinned deep, but for the first time in the second half, Peyton Manning and the Denver offense got it going, and with the assistance of a couple of Baltimore penalties, the Broncos drove 88 yards before Manning hit Demaryius Thomas with his third touchdown pass of the game.
The Ravens defense looked tired at the end of that 10-play drive, but as "da realist" indicated, Ray Lewis was certainly doing his part to keep the Ravens in the game.
As they had all game long, the Ravens responded, driving into Denver territory with under five minutes to play, but a fourth-down pass to Dennis Pitta fell incomplete, much to the chagrin of Matt Vensel of The Baltimore Sun.
Dennis Pitta catches pretty much everything, but he couldn't make that tough grab on the move. #Ravens turn the ball over on downs.— Matt Vensel (@mattvensel) January 13, 2013
Baltimore forced a punt, and with 1:15 left to play, Joe Flacco and the Ravens took the field with 77 yards to go and no timeouts.
Then, on 3rd-and-3, Flacco found a bafflingly wide-open Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard bomb that shocked the Broncos and members of the media such as Nathan Zegura of CBS Sports alike.
WOW!!!!!FLACCO!!!!!!!Bomb to Jacoby Jones and we are tied in Denver!— Nathan Zegura (@NathanZegura) January 13, 2013
The Broncos, with all their timeouts and 30 seconds on the clock, ate the ball, and just like that, it was on to overtime.
At this point, even I had to admit we were watching something special.
The rest of the playoff games this YEAR are going have a hard time topping Baltimore at Denver. What a game! #insanity— Gary Davenport (@IDPManor) January 13, 2013
A questionable catch by Anquan Boldin and even more questionable pass-interference call on Champ Bailey moved the Ravens to about midfield, and fans such as Boneth Ahaneku weren't shy at this point about expressing their displeasure with the officiating.
The Broncos might as well get off the field right now because the refs are giving the Ravens the game— Boneth Ahaneku (@Turlin) January 13, 2013
However, a huge sack forced a Ravens punt, and then it was Peyton Manning's turn.
The Broncos were also forced to punt, leaving the Ravens to start their second drive of extra time from inside their 10-yard line. A huge third-down catch from Pitta bought the Ravens some breathing room, but as the first overtime wound under the five-minute mark, the Ravens were forced to punt again.
This cold front actually might move out of Denver by the time this game ends.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncanTP) January 13, 2013
By this juncture in the game, it appeared that it might come down to who blinked first.
It was Peyton Manning.
Wow. That was a Brett FAvre-like across your-body INT there by Peyton Manning. Very uncharacteristic.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncanTP) January 13, 2013
Manning's second interception and a tough run by Ray Rice set the Ravens up inside the Denver 35 as double overtime began (no, seriously). From there the Ravens pounded away with Rice to set up rookie Justin Tucker from 47 yards out.
IT'S GOOD!!! IT'S GOOD!!! #RAVENS WIN!!!!— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 13, 2013
And just like that, the Ravens pulled off a huge upset, Peyton Manning's struggles in both the cold weather and the postseason continued, and Baltimore advanced to the AFC championship with an incredible 38-35 win.
For the Ravens, it means that Ray Lewis will play on:
Grown men crying with happiness - Ray Lewis & Raven buddies bring sadness to the Mile High City - fab W— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) January 13, 2013
For the Broncos, an 11-game winning streak comes to an end in crushing fashion, and after his three turnovers led to 17 points to the Ravens, those who doubt Manning's ability to win "the big game" are no doubt feeling vindicated by stats such as the one pointed out by Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post.
For those keeping track, that is now EIGHT playoff one-and-dones for Peyton Manning -- five of them at home.— Bart Hubbuch (@HubbuchNYP) January 13, 2013
Now if you'll excuse me, after that game I need a nap.