As is often the case, the outcome of Saturday's Baltimore Ravens meeting with the Denver Broncos can be boiled down to one play—Ravens cornerback Corey Graham's interception of Manning near the end of the first overtime period, which set up Justin Tucker's game-winning 47-yard field goal at the start of the second.
However defining that final interception was, the game twisted and turned numerous times to get to the Ravens' 38-35 victory. With the advantage for either side never greater than a single score, each possession of the ball carried with it a sense of ever-increasing urgency. It's why this game will now be included among the NFL's best.
It started innocuously enough, with the Ravens' drive stalling after running back Ray Rice was tackled by Von Miller. However, things proceeded quickly from that point on.
Denver's Trindon Holliday returned the ensuing punt for 90 yards and a score, the next Baltimore drive resulted in a 59-yard Torrey Smith touchdown, and once Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning finally got his hands on the football, he tossed a pick-six to Graham. Four minutes later, the Broncos scored again on a 15-yard pass to Brandon Stokley and the game was tied, 14-14, before the first quarter had closed.
By halftime, both teams had put up 21 points apiece, with the Ravens tying the game up—again—with a 32-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith with 36 seconds remaining in the second quarter. It seemed as though neither Baltimore's nor Denver's defense could contain the opponent's offensive efforts. Neither side notched a hit or sack on the quarterbacks, and though Manning had an interception returned for a touchdown, both he and Flacco had two touchdown passes and a comfortable time in the pocket.
Defense, however, helped define the rest of the game, and was nearly Baltimore's undoing in the fourth quarter. With the Broncos' time of possession growing—by the time the game ended, they ran 87 plays—the Ravens' defense started to finally wear down. With just over seven minutes left in regulation, the Broncos turned yet another clock-eating drive into seven points, with Manning connecting with Demaryius Thomas on the offense's 68th play of the game. The Broncos were up, 35-28, and the Ravens had no choice but to score or go home for the year.
That was the only offensive score for the Broncos in the second half—their other touchdown was a Holliday kickoff return, for 104 yards. Baltimore's defense finally found ways to bring pressure to Manning, sacking him three times (two for Terrell Suggs and one for Pernell McPhee) and hitting him five more times.
The deep end of the field was all but cut off for Manning, and though the run game produced 125 yards on 41 total rushes, it never quite found sure footing, especially after Knowshon Moreno left with a knee injury. It made sense why the defense eventually looked run-down once regulation headed to its close, but Flacco's ability to again put forth a final scoring effort, connecting with Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard touchdown to tie the game with 31 seconds remaining, clearly injected the worn unit with much-needed energy.
Baltimore's defense gave up just 398 total yards of offense even though Denver ran 87 plays. None of the Broncos' backs had 100 rushing yards, and none of their receivers had 100 yards in the air. They faced 43 passes and 41 runs, and yet, Graham had enough left in the tank physically and mentally to make the game-deciding play. Not so bad for an injury-ravaged unit that includes some of the older defenders in the league.
The Ravens' success hinged on both their defense's stamina as well as Flacco's poise. Though his throws weren't flawless, and he was nearly intercepted on multiple occasions, his offensive line's ability to control Denver's league-leading pass rush gave him enough time to exploit the Broncos' weaknesses in coverage—cornerback Champ Bailey, who could barely shadow Smith and paid dearly for it, and safeties Mike Adams, Rahim Moore and Jim Leonhard, who have struggled all year against tight ends.
Flacco ended his day with a better stat line than Manning, completing 18-of-34 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns with a lost fumble that didn't ultimately net the Broncos any points. Manning, in contrast, was 28-of-43 for 290 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a lost fumble that led to Ray Rice's one-yard rushing score that tied the game at 28. Rice had 131 rushing yards himself, on 30 carries, with 21 of those coming in the second half and overtime. It was clearly a balanced offensive effort, and an approach that paid off.
Now, the Ravens head to the AFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season and are clearly hoping for a better outcome than last year. Considering how they held their own against one of the NFL's highest-octane offenses and quarterback-killing defenses, they look ready to avenge the disappointment of the previous season. They just forced the AFC's top seed go one-and-done in the postseason, after all, making it safe to say that momentum is on their side.