The Baltimore Ravens came into Denver as heavy underdogs and shocked the Broncos by the score of 38-35 in the second overtime period. It was a back-and-forth battle with the Broncos scoring by way of Trindon Holliday’s punt and kick return touchdowns and Peyton Manning’s three touchdown passes.
While there was questionable officiating throughout the game, the Broncos also made a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes that the Ravens turned into points. When it comes to assigning blame for those mistakes, the biggest culprits were Denver’s three leaders: Manning, John Fox and Champ Bailey.
Bailey was beat badly and allowed Torrey Smith to catch two long touchdowns, one of which was at the end of the first half and tied the game 21-21. If the Broncos had been able to get a stop, Holliday’s kick return touchdown to start the second half would have given them a 14-point lead.
Bailey was beat several times in the first half, with Joe Flacco delivering inaccurate passes on two of them. The Broncos also gave the Ravens a gift in the first half when Manning’s third pass of the game bounced off Eric Decker’s hands and was returned for a touchdown by Corey Graham.
While Bailey’s play was a big reason the Ravens were able to score in the game, Manning and Holliday had done enough to give the Broncos a 28-21 lead toward the end of the third quarter. The Broncos got the ball and were trying to drive down the field to get a two-score lead when Manning fumbled trying to tuck the ball back into his body on a 3rd-and-10 pass play.
The officials could have ruled that Manning was attempting to tuck the ball, but apparently didn’t see enough evidence on replay. Manning initially lost grip on the ball trying to tuck the ball, but got a second hand on it before losing control. Paul Kruger recovered the fumble and the Ravens turned to Ray Rice to get them a touchdown. Rice ran it five consecutive times, including a 32-yard scamper and a one-yard touchdown run that tied the game again at 28.
After trading defensive stops, Manning and the Broncos orchestrated an 88-yard touchdown drive that was aided by two penalties on the Ravens. Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for the 17-yard touchdown, which gave the Broncos a 35-28 lead with just over seven minutes to play.
Denver’s defense held on the following drive with Flacco throwing incomplete 4th-and-5 to give Manning the ball back with just over three minutes to play. The Ravens even had to burn a timeout before the fourth-down play, giving them just two timeouts and the two-minute warning to stop the clock. The Broncos should have been able to prevail by simply running the clock out.
Ronnie Hillman ran the ball four times to bring up a 3rd-and-7 with the Ravens out of timeouts. Knowshon Moreno had injured his knee earlier in the game and had been unable to return. Fox played it safe and ran on third down even though it took the ball out of Manning’s hands giving the ball back to the Ravens with just over a minute to play.
On 3rd-and-3 Flacco evaded the rush and hit Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard touchdown that tied the game with 38 seconds on the clock. Jones got behind safety Rahim Moore to redeem himself for dropping a pass on third down on the Ravens’ previous drive.
Fox again was conservative and opted to kneel the ball with 31 seconds left and two timeouts. It was Fox who took the ball out of Manning’s hands twice at the end of the game. Fox played not to lose the game and eventually lost it in overtime.
The momentum had shifted, and the Ravens got the ball to start the overtime period, but Denver’s defense atoned for its earlier mistakes and forced a punt when Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combined to take down Flacco on 3rd-and-2. Manning got the ball in overtime needing only a field goal, but the Broncos failed to get a first down on 2nd-and-2 or 3rd-and-1 and were forced to punt it away.
Denver’s defense held again even after the Ravens tight end made a circus catch on 3rd-and-13 between two defenders to extend the drive. A great punt and special teams tackle by the Ravens gave the Broncos the ball at the 7-yard line needing only a field goal to win. Manning moved the Broncos out to the 34-yard line with a combination of runs and short passes.
In what seemed like an endless overtime period, the first big mistake was made by Denver’s best player. Manning was flushed from the pocket and had to move to his right on a pass on 2nd-and-6 and threw a bad ball that landed in the arms of Graham for his second interception of the game.
The Ravens would use Rice to set up the field-goal attempt for the win as the game went into the second overtime period. In the cold, thin air at Sports Authority Field, Justin Tucker was able to sneak the ball inside the right upright from 47 yards out to give the Ravens the hard-fought victory.
It was a disappointing and frustrating end to the season for the fans in Denver, as Manning’s first year in orange came to an abrupt end. Mistakes are costly in the playoffs, and the Broncos just made too many of them and will almost certainly lead to an offseason of "what ifs." Credit the Ravens for turning every Denver miscue into points and never letting the Broncos pull away and for never giving up despite seemingly insurmountable odds.