Five thoughts on the Ravens' 38-35 victory over the Denver Broncos Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:
Let's talk about where this ranks among the most epic games in the Ravens' history. Their Super Bowl win was more important, but it was a rout. Their AFC title win over Oakland was huge, as were their upsets of top-seeded Tennessee teams in 2000 and 2008, but those were grinding affairs. For back-and-forth action and sheer jaw-dropping incredulity with a season on the line, this has to rank at the top, as the very best game. That might sound like overheated hyperbole concocted after a thrilling win, but sorry, they could play another thousand games without forcing overtime in the final seconds of a playoff game with a 70-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass. It will go down as the Mile High Miracle, an answered prayer that silenced a rowdy stadium of fans counting down the seconds to victory. The longest game in the Ravens' history had it all, brilliant playmaking, kick returns for touchdowns, pick-sixes for touchdowns, a miraculous last-minute swing, double overtime, a rookie kicker nailing the game winner. A football game simply can't get any better.
As he dressed after the game, Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones pulled on a black t-shirt with the words "Fast as ----" stenciled across the chest. (Yes, it actually had the dashes; those are not edits for family reading.) "I'm darn sure going to wear this outta here tonight," he said. As if anyone in Denver needed to be reminded that Jones is, in fact, fast. It was his speed that enabled him to … unbelievably ... get behind the last line of Denver's defense in the final minute, when all the Broncos had to do was protect against the big play; an unthinkable lapse that cost the Broncos their season. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was encouraged to fling the ball far downfield when he saw Jones break open, and Denver's defenders compounded their gaffe by misjudging the throw, enabling Jones to grab it. "It looked like a punt coming out of the air," Jones said. A handful of elements conspired to make the play happen, but it started with Jones' speed.
I don't know if Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback. I have watched him have great games and not-so-great games, win some and lose some. But even his harshest critics have to concede that he is a force come playoff time. He outplayed Tom Brady in the AFC title game last year and briefly had the Ravens in the Super Bowl until Lee Evans dropped his on-target pass. Then he played future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning to a dead heat at worst Saturday. Both threw for three touchdowns and a lot of yards, but Flacco didn't throw an interception and Manning tossed two, which cost the Broncos dearly. Manning's crucial overtime pick, his third turnover of the game, will not help him erase his label as a playoff underachiever, a quarterback who plays better in the regular season. Flacco is the opposite. His playoff record is now 7-4 with three trips to the conference title game in five years. He is playing again next week, while Manning is out. That's pretty darn … wait for it … elite.
That the game came down to a field goal was, of course, the richest possible irony. It was a missed field goal that ruined the Ravens' chances in the AFC title game a year ago, a missed field goal that summed up the team's penchant for getting oh-so close but not quite where they want to go. This time, however, a different guy was kicking, rookie Justin Tucker instead of veteran Billy Cundiff, and frankly, I had little doubt that he was going to nail the 47-yarder, especially after the teams fortuitously switched ends just before his attempt because the first quarter of overtime ended. Feel free to view that little stroke of good fortune as a swing of fate, perhaps the football gods (kicking dept.) giving back to the Ravens what they took away a year ago. During pregame warmups I watched Tucker convert a 65-yarder in that direction, with a tailwind at his back in the high altitude. The young man is brimming with confidence as it is, but with that extra edge in his favor, he was pretty much a lock to end the game, and he surely did, instantly earning a high place in Baltimore football history.
I'm normally not one to buy into the "adversity" angle. It's tough all over. Every team, good and bad, deals with injuries, issues, bad bounces, things that don't go their way. But the Ravens have indeed dealt with a lot this season, way more than their average share, so much that if they had come up short Saturday, it would have been easy to say, well, they just had a little too much go against them between the injuries, having to go on the road in January, giving up inopportune kick returns, etc. But they didn't succumb to that, and all you can do is stand back and applaud. They overcame it all to score an improbable win Saturday, a win that few outside of their locker room saw coming, and they did it on the strength of their "non-measurables," the stuff you read about in young adult sports fiction. Not giving up. Continuing to believe. Having your teammates' backs. Finding a way to win. You couldn't write it up any more dramatically even with the license to make stuff up. But this game was real. It did happen. I swear.