Ravens always stayed within striking distance
There are certainly no shortage of highlight-reel plays from the Ravens' remarkable 38-35, overtime win at Denver in the Divisional Round on Saturday. There was a punt return score, an interception return score, and a 59-yard bomb to Torrey Smith. And heck, that was in the first six minutes. Throw in a 104-yard kickoff return and the Mile High Miracle, the 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones in the final minute of regulation -- which will be talked about in Baltimore only for about forever -- and the game moved from exciting to downright ridiculous.
But in addition to those, here are five hugely signficant plays in the game. In some cases, these plays hardly registered a blip on the stat sheet. But without each of them, the game would have turned out to be very different.
In chronological order:
Matt Prater shanks a 52-yard field goal.
Yes, it was a 52-yarder in frigid weather, but that is well within Prater's range. He came into the game 15-for-20 from 50 yards or more. When he trotted out to try a 52-yarder with 1:21 left in the first half, he could have given Denver a 24-14 lead. Instead, he essentially grounded his club like a duffer at the local muni course. His kicking foot contacted the turf well behind the ball and the flubbed kick wobbled badly off course. The Ravens took over at their own 42-yard line, and three plays later Flacco hit Smith on a 32-yard touchdown pass to tie the game just before halftime.
Paul Kruger recovers a fumble.
The Broncos were leading again by seven, 28-21, and driving late in the third quarter. Peyton Manning, who had been kept clean throughout the first half, finally faced some pressure from the Ravens. Pernell McPhee rushed in and sacked Manning, who lost the ball. Paul Kruger recovered. Hold on a minute. The play was reviewed, and it appeared Manning and the Broncos might benefit from the Tuck Rule. Instead, the ruling of a fumble was upheld, the Ravens took over near midfield, and Ray Rice ran five straight times, including a game-tying touchdown.
Ronnie Hillman rushes for no gain.
All the Broncos needed was one more first down and the game was over. They faced third-and-7 from the Denver 47 coming out of the two-minute warning. Would they let Peyton Manning throw for the game-clinching first down, and risk a clock-stopping incompletion? Or run the ball and eat the clock? The Broncos went conservative, effectively taking the ball out of Manning's hands. Hillman carried off right tackle but was stuffed for no gain by Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Arthur Jones, forcing a Denver punt. That gave Flacco and Jacoby Jones the chance to work some magic a minute later.
Peyton Manning takes a knee.
This is the play that seems to have Denver fans riled up more than any other. After the Mile High Miracle had settled into Jones' hands, and after the Ravens had stunningly tied the game at 35, the Broncos took over at their own 20-yard line with 31 seconds and two timeouts left. They probably needed 35 yards to give Prater a shot to win the game. Instead, Manning took a knee, and the game went to overtime. For the second time in two minutes, the Broncos essentially took the ball out of the hands of their surefire Hall of Fame quarterback.
Facing third-and-13 from the Ravens 3-yard line in overtime, the Ravens needed a first down in the worst way. A punt likely would have left the Broncos close to field-goal range. Flacco stood tall in his own end zone and found a leaping Pitta down the middle for a 24-yard gain. The drive stalled, but the chains had been moved and the field position shift was monumental. When Sam Koch delivered a 52-yard punt, and Jimmy Smith came through with a huge open-field tackle, the Broncos were the ones backed up inside their own 10-yard line. That drive ended with Corey Graham's second interception, at the Broncos 45-yard line, setting up Justin Tucker's game-winning kick in the second overtime.