Before we move onto breaking down the AFC Championship game rematch between the Ravens and Patriots this Sunday, it is fitting that we take one last look at Saturday’s Epic at Mile High. Writers and bloggers have been clamoring all week as to what to call this game. It is going to be a special on the NFL Network one day, at the very least, one of the top playoff games of all time.
The Miracle at Mile High (as we will call it) was the fourth-longest game in NFL history. It began with a punt return for a touchdown and ended with an undrafted rookie kicker nailing a 47-yard field goal to give the Baltimore Ravens a 38-35 improbable win.
What happened in between can only be described as mind numbing. The game was not the only thing making this contest numbing. The temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees, the second-coldest start to a home game in Broncos history. By halftime, it dropped to nine degrees with a minus-three wind-chill.
The two teams did their best to keep the Broncos faithful warm and standing. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this was the first playoff game in NFL history with an offensive, defensive and special-teams touchdown in the first quarter. It was only the third postseason game in NFL history in which each team scored two touchdowns in the first quarter and only the second postseason game in NFL history to go into overtime without any field goals for either team during the game's first 60 minutes.
The Ravens and the Broncos combined to achieve this feat in the first 5 minutes, 11 seconds. Trindon Holliday returned the game's first punt 90 yards for a touchdown, Smith caught a 59-yard touchdown on the second drive and Graham brought back an interception 39 yards for a score on the third drive.
The contest was the first overtime game in NFL postseason history in which the teams had an identical score-by-quarters line score through the first four quarters. Each team scored 14 points in the first quarter and had seven points in the second, third and fourth quarters. Moreover, the score was tied at five different levels during the game (after 0-0, of course) - knotted at 7-7, 14-14, 21-21, 28-28 and 35-35. That is the most different ties in any of the 488 postseason games in NFL history.
The city of Baltimore has now had the good fortune of being involved in one third of every double overtime game in NFL history. Saturday marked the sixth double OT affair and first 2OT game since 2004. For those that do not remember, on Christmas Eve 1977, the Oakland Raiders, behind Ken Stabler's three touchdown passes to Dave Casper, defeated the Baltimore Colts at Memorial Stadium 37-31 in “The Ghost to the Post” game.
Saturday’s win evens the cities mark in double overtime at 1-1, and is indeed redemption for a person like me, who was there on that balmy 60-degree day 35-years ago as a 7-year old kid.
With that’s said, lets pay homage to the hero’s from the 2013 game, as we hand out some helmet stickers, game balls and pats on the back for what is arguably the biggest win in Ravens football history.
Joe Flacco gets a game ball and should be in line for a decent payday following another playoff game in which he outplayed a living quarterback legend in their own back yard.
Flash back to Week 15 and Flacco lying face down on the turf at M&T Bank Stadium following his 98-yard pick 6 to Chris Harris just before the half to give Denver a 17-0 lead. That motionless face down pose from No.5 after he failed to make the tackle became known as Flaccoing.
I would be willing to bet that Broncos fans have a different definition of Flaccoing after Joe Cool torched their vaunted second ranked defense. In fact, I would be willing to bet that those in the Mile High City may change the name of the Hail Mary pass to “The Flacco” after the 70-yard Baltimore Bomb he threw to Jacoby Jones with only 41 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game.
Flacco outdueled Manning, just as he did Tom Brady last January when it mattered most and is now 7-4 after his first 11 post season games. Manning continued to struggle in the playoffs. In comparison, Manning was just 5-6 after his first 11 post-season contests. To be fair, games 12 and 13 were a conference championship and Super Bowl victory for No.18.
The Broncos future Hall of Fame signal caller is now 9-11 in the post season and 0-4 in playoff games when the temperature is 50 degrees or lower at kickoff. For all of the great accomplishments in Manning’s career, he continued to align himself on the wrong side of post-season football history Saturday night.
The Ravens were the first team in NFL history to win a postseason game in which it trailed by seven-or-more points with so little time remaining in the fourth quarter. The previous record was held by the Dolphins, who in the 2000 postseason, trailed this team by seven points until scoring a touchdown with 34 seconds left in the fourth quarter; Miami then won in overtime, 23-17. The losing team…..the Indianapolis Colts, which means Peyton Manning was the losing quarterback in that game as well
If you taped the game, go back and watch the coin flip prior to overtime, all you need to know about how this one was going to turn out was how Manning reacted as he stood there and waited for the officials to provide the rules. Head down, hands in his warmer, he never returned a look to Ray Lewis who confidently stared at Manning and called “heads” and won the toss in doing so.
How improbable was it that the Ravens even reached the second coin toss, according to ESPN Stats & Information’s win probability model, Denver had a 97.2 percent chance of winning the game before Flacco hit Jones with the Baltimore Bomb.
This is may be Ray Lewis last ride but the 2013 post-season is turning out to be Joe Flacco’s playoffs. His three touchdown passes at Denver on Saturday - covering 59 yards with a first-quarter toss to Torrey Smith, 32 yards on a strike just before halftime to Smith, and 70 yards on the pivotal fourth-quarter connection to Jacoby Jones, tied the NFL single-game postseason record for most touchdown passes gaining 30-or-more yards.
Seven other players have done that, with the last one, ironically, being none other than Peyton Manning, who also did it against the Broncos, in a 41-10 win for the Colts nine years ago, with two long scoring tosses to Brandon Stokley and one to Marvin Harrison.
The last player who had a pair of touchdown passes of 50-plus yards in a postseason game was Daunte Culpepper, who hit Randy Moss for 53- and 68-yard scores in a victory over the Saints in January 2001.
Flacco is now 5-4 in road playoff games. Peyton’s brother, Eli Manning (5-1) is the only other quarterback in NFL history who has won as many as five road postseason starts as a visiting player (neutral-site games not included).
Flacco is their top rated passer so far in the playoffs. Last week’s vs. Manning’s former team, Flacco had 12 completions for 282 passing yards. The only other quarterback since 1960 to have at least as many yards on that few completions in a postseason game was Tim Tebow for the Denver Broncos against the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. Tebow also happens to be the last Broncos QB top win a post-season game. Just thought I would add that one.
So far this post season, the Ravens fifth year signal caller has 30 completions for 613 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. If you are keeping score at home and I know you are, that is an astounding 20.4 yards per completion.
According to Alan’s simple math, Flacco is averaging 39.8 yards per touchdown completion. While his completion percentage (52.6 percent) is unbearable to look at, his 63.6 percent post-season winning percentage and now three trips to the AFC Championship game, make it easy to tolerate.
This past season, the long ball was a valuable and destructive part of the Ravens offense. Flacco and company produced 72 offensive plays of 20-or-more yards this season, setting a franchise record. Additionally, the Ravens threw 41 passes gaining at least 25 yards, a figure that ranks as the most in Ravens single-season history and second in the NFL.
The biggest turning point of Saturday night’s game, aside from the 70-yard touchdown pass, came on a pass where Flacco needed a lot of touch and guts to complete. On third and 13 with 6:01 remaining in the first overtime, from his own three-yard line, Flacco stepped up in the pocket, which was in the end zone and threw a beautiful pass to tight end Dennis Pitta, who earns a helmet sticker for his catch of the 24-yard pass and important Ravens first down.
After two Ray Rice runs and an incomplete pass, the Ravens ended up punting but they managed to flip the field. Punting from their own end zone would have given the Broncos excellent field position. Despite missing a 50 plus yard field goal earlier in the game, Denver kicker Matt Prater is one of the best in the league at home and his range at Sports Authority Filed is about 55 to 60-yards. Tempting fate twice would likely have ended the game and sent the Ravens home losers.
CAMERON VS. CALDWELL
The trend of throwing the long ball has continued into the post season but sacrificing Ray Rice and the Ravens rushing attack has not. Fired Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron did a lot great things during his almost five seasons in Baltimore, but he could never find a balance between implementing the deep ball and running the ball.
New offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell seems to have found one and he gets the next game ball. For all of Cameron’s accomplishments’, including guiding a Ravens team that scored the most points in franchise history this season, with just 27 rushing yards at halftime, would Cameron have stuck with a game plan to run consistently on first down while trailing on the road during the second half?
The answer, or at least according to Ravens play calling history, is no but Caldwell continued to run Rice on first down knowing what everyone was always screaming at Cameron, eventually, Rice would get going and he did.
Once he did start finding holes, Rice was running on first, second and third downs. After only 23 first half yards, Rice gained 107 second half yards to finish with season highs of 30 carries and 130 yards. Rice ran the ball for all five plays after his team recovered a Peyton Manning fumble that culminated with Rice’s 1-yard TD run, which tied the score at 28.
That is putting the ball in your play makers hand when it matters most and a major reason why Caldwell and not Cameron is now calling the plays for the Ravens offense.
Caldwell sits up stairs with a pair of binoculars and calls plays down to the sidelines. What he saw on Sunday was the Ravens offensive line wearing out the Denver rush defense in between the tackles. That is something that not many offensive coordinators have seen this season.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, 24 of Rice’s 30 carries were between the tackles. He finished with 94 yards and one touchdown in between the tackles, the most against the Broncos this season. Denver entered this game with an NFL-best 3.52 yards per rush inside the tackles.
Rice entered this game struggling with the ball during the playoffs; he lost two fumbles last week and had not eclipsed more than 70 yards rushing over his last seven-playoff contests. However, according to Rice, Caldwell told him at halftime that the Ravens were going to,” win or lose with the ball in Rice’s hands”.
The persistence paid off as Rice became only the second player this season to produce 100 yards rushing and a touchdown against Denver. The only player to do so was New England's Stevan Ridley in Week 5, which was Denver's last loss before its 11-game winning streak that ended the regular season.
Oh by the way, while we are at it, let’s go ahead and give Ray Rice a game ball as well.
POSITION COACHES PLAY A PIVOTAL ROLE:
Staying on the offensive side of the ball, the most valuable game ball goes to a guy that did not even put on a pair of shoulder pads or helmet. He never lined up for one play and despite never establishing a rushing attack when the Broncos beat the Ravens 34-17 back in December, offensive line coach Andy Moeller, had the most prepared unit on the field to handle the biggest threats the Broncos posed to the Ravens during both games, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.
The former Michigan offensive line coach came to Baltimore in 2008 as an assistant O-line coach and just finished his second season as the primary O-line coach.
Position coaches are responsible for reviewing game film with their units and breaking down teams and figuring out ways to stop or beat them. Well run teams are like well-oiled machines, the parts all run separate of each other early in the week then come together to form the game plan.
Moeller and his unit somehow figured out a way to stop the hottest defense in the NFL. The Broncos' basic 4-3 defense has lots of disguises and a few hybrid 3-4 looks, not surprising with ex-Ravens linebackers coach Jack Del Rio as the coordinator. It has caused enough confusion to produce 52 sacks, tied with St. Louis for the league lead and just ahead of Cincinnati's 51.
Leading the way for the new Orange Crush defense is linebacker Von Miller. With 18.5 sacks, 28 tackles for a loss this season, 27 quarterback knockdowns, 12 quarterback hurries and 13 run stuffs, Miller is the leading candidate to replace Terrell Suggs as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
When Miller is not torturing quarterbacks, defensive end Elvis Dumervil is. In all, Del Rio’s approach led to a dozen Broncos recording at least one sack this season.
However, Miller, who is in his second season after being drafted second overall in the 2011 NFL Draft from Texas A&M has been held in check in two games against the Ravens. In fact, the Broncos vaunted pass rush has managed just four sacks of Joe Flacco in slightly over 10 quarters of football this season. Miller had a half sack to go with nine tackles Saturday night but he was far from the Miller everyone said the Ravens needed to fear.
Miller was held without a sack in four games this season including the Week 15 game in Baltimore. Back in Week 15, the Ravens offensive line ended Millers consecutive games with a sack streak at six games.
This was not the work of one individual but the scheme the entire unit executed in limiting Miller and Dumervil. When you consider Moeller did this with two different lines in less than a month, the feat becomes even more impressive.
In December, the Ravens were missing Pro-Bowl guard Marshall Yanda, and started Michael Oher, Jah Reid, Matt Birk, Bobbie Williams and Kelechi Osemele from left to right.
On Saturday night, Bryant McKinnie, Osemele, Birk, Marshall Yanda and Michael Oher started from left tackle to right tackle. Two different lineman than in December and two moved positions. The result was one Denver sack for the entire game and that was a result of great down field coverage (for once) by the Broncos secondary.
The Ravens offensive line wore down Denver in their own climate. They beat them constantly in the second half with great angle blocking creating just enough room for Ray Rice to gain 117 second half yards.
LED BY COREY GRAHAM AND TWO FAMILIAR STARS, DEFENSE SHINES:
Defensively, the Ravens stuck exclusively with President Thomas Jefferson (The Nickel) for almost the game’s first 70 plays. This was because the Broncos had three receivers on the field for most of the game.
The Ravens defense was on the field for 87 offensive snaps, the same amount they were on the field for last week at home vs. Indianapolis, but the Broncos seemed to suffer from bad play calling and poor execution. While there is no excuse for safety Rahim Morris not to be deep on the Jones TD, equally without sense or logic is Broncos head coach John Fox not using two time outs and more than 30 seconds before the end of the game or first half to try to get three points. Also equally befuddling was the Broncos lack of consistent use of the no-huddle, or hurry up offense, which has been a big part of Peyton Manning’s success during his career.
The Broncos used it at times but not nearly enough to take advantage of a Ravens team not used to playing a mile high and not coming off a bye as the Broncos were. Manning had made the comment during the week to Greg Gumbel of CBS that he would like to, “take their lungs for a test drive”, but he never did for any sustained clock time.
These factors allowed the Ravens to become a comfortable defense on the road and play more up-tempo during the second half. After feeling out Manning and the Broncos offense during the first half, the Ravens capitalized during the second half.
HALFTIME ADJUSTMENTS A STAPLE OF RAVENS DEFENSE ALL SEASON: As he did all year, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Peas made great adjustments at half time. It took a while for the Ravens' pass rush to heat up but once it did, Baltimore's pressure on Peyton Manning changed the game. In the first half, the Ravens did not sack or put any pressure on Manning on 22-drop backs. In the second half, Peas’ group pressured Manning 10 times on 24-drop backs (41.7 percent).That pressure led to two turnovers, including the interception in the second overtime that set up the Ravens’ game-winning field goal. On that interception, Paul Kruger forced Manning out of the pocket and kept him off-balance on that throw. Manning’s arm strength is about half of what it once was and throwing off his back foot was something Manning knew better than to do. Manning himself called it a,”Bad decision on his part”, and “obviously a throw I’d like to have back”.
Of course, the play of Corey Graham this season has been nothing less but needed. The free agent special teamer who signed with the Ravens this past off-season from the Chicago Bears has been another great but cheap find by Ozzie Newsome. His pick six and overtime interception of Manning was more than on time, it was season saving and with a win on Sunday, Super Bowl worthy. Graham's seven tackles, one QB hit and two picks earn him the MVP GAME BALL of the night.
In fact, Grahams' performance could easily go down as one of the three best in all time Ravens playoff history. With two quarterback hits, Kruger continued his good play and gets a helmet sticker for his efforts. Last years defensive player of the year turned in his best performance at the right time since returning from an Achilles injury. Terrell Suggs had two sacks, which matched his regular-season total and pitched in with 10 tackles, which was second behind Ray Lewis’s 17 for the day. Both Lewis and Suggs get game balls.
The Ravens did what many teams could not do against the Broncos. Manning was never pressured on more than 28 percent of his drop backs in any half this season. He was sacked or put under duress only 14.2 percent of the time in 2012, the lowest rate for any qualified quarterback.
What made all of the Ravens pass rush efforts in the second half work even more effective are how the Ravens frustrated Manning with their secondary play. Manning threw only one pass more than 20 yards down field all game.
This could be because of his success underneath and in the short and intermediate routes. Manning and Ray Lewis may have had a great moment after the game but during it, Manning abused Lewis with the short passing game.
Lewis was perfect in coverage for the contest. He allowed eight completions on eight Manning attempts and on another pass attempt, was called for pass interference. Blitzer extraordinaire and former Georgia Bulldogs linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe had a pass defended, but was beaten for five completions on eight Manning targets. One of those plays was the beautiful double move by Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, as Manning dropped in a perfect touchdown strike that Ellerbe had no chance on in the second quarter.
The Ravens defensive game plan was a patient one and one that allowed them to stop the run more effectively this time versus Denver. While Lewis could not cover a white barn with red paint right now, he and Suggs, along with rookie Courtney Upshaw stop gapped the Broncos rushing attack all day.
Lewis led the Ravens with 17 tackles as Baltimore, which allowed the Broncos 145 rushing yards in Week 15, held Denver to 126 yards on 40 rushing attempts, the Broncos gained just 3.2 YPC and did not have a carry more than 11 yards.
The most patient game of the day had to come from Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. Despite the fact that Pollard and Reed finished first and fifth on the Ravens in tackles this season, both had just five combined on Saturday, they were instrumental during the Ravens win.
Patience is a virtue and the two-deep man under coverage the Ravens played during the second half confused Peyton Manning and kept the Broncos two best wide receivers ,Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas in check and underneath the Ravens coverage. In fact, Manning mentioned it three times during his post-game news conference.
The underneath routes and amount of rushing attempts (40) would indicate that Manning was waiting for the Raves to bite. Just as Reed and Carey Williams did in Week 15 when Manning made them pay with a 51-yard TD pass to Eric Decker. Not on Saturday though, on 46 passing plays, Denver had 273 yards, or just 5.93 yards per passing play. Not enough to win a game in which the opposition scores 38 points. Reed and Pollard get a game ball for sticking to the game plan and playing with discipline and the Ravens Dean Peas gets one as well for his second half adjustments.
If you are wondering where this game ranks in the annals of Baltimore football history, I placed it third out of five games. I had the Week 14 1977 Baltimore Colts game vs. the Patriots, which was a win or go home proposition for Bert Jones and his team at No.5.
No. 4 was the Baltimore Colts beating the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10 of the 1958 season. After trailing by 20 points at halftime, Johnny Unitas led the second half comeback as No.19 outdueled Y.A. Title to help the Colts reach the playoffs. They entered the contest at 8-1. Already with a loss to the NY Giants during the season, losing to the Niners would have ended their season so to speak.
No.3 was THE MIRACLE AT MILE HIGH FEATURING THE BALTIMORE BOMB-----Enough said!
No.2 is the Ravens Super Bowl XXXV victory over the New York Giants and of course, No.1 is the Greatest Game Ever Played. The 1958 Championship when Unitas gave to Ameche in the first sudden death game in NFL history, which the Colts won to capture their first title.
In case you were wondering, the 1959 Championship win and the 2000 Divisional playoff game at Tennessee were six and seven respectively.
Stay tuned all week long right here as I deliver analysis of the AFC Championship game. Also, be sure to log onto the FANSPEAK RADIO NETWORK as Stephen Shoup and I breakdown and analyze both title games this weekend. Shoup will also be reporting from the road where he is currently attending the East-West Shrine game practices and next week will be at the Senior Bowl in Mobile Alabama.
A special edition of Ravens Playoff Extra will air on Wednesday night at 8:30.