DENVER -- There have been plenty of mind-blowing choke jobs in the NFL playoffs over the past few decades, but not many can beat what happened at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Saturday night.
On an evening when the Denver Broncos were one play away from clinching a spot in next Sunday's AFC Championship Game, they imploded in a manner that will be discussed for years to come. At worst, it could become the defining game of Peyton Manning's time in this town.
The Baltimore Ravens offered plenty of great quotes about resolve and a relentless spirit, which was their right after their 38-35 victory in double overtime. But nobody outside of their fan base should buy into such bluster. The Ravens won because they hung around long enough to take advantage of the Broncos' critical errors. That's the only way to explain the way this AFC divisional playoff game played out.
There was an improbable last-minute touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones in regulation. There was the Broncos offense shriveling in the second half, Champ Bailey morphing into a liability and coach John Fox pulling out a severely conservative game plan in overtime. Finally, there were three huge turnovers by Manning, the last of which set up the Ravens' game-winning field goal.
As Manning said after the loss, "It's very disappointing because of all the work we've put into this season. We had planned on playing next week. Losing by a field goal in overtime is disappointing."
This loss was so alarming to watch that it's hard to even know where to start the criticism. This was a game that seemed to be in Denver's grasp from the beginning. Trindon Holliday opened the scoring with a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown and started the second half with a 104-yard kickoff return for another touchdown. It's difficult to lose with two touchdowns on special teams and Manning under center. It's like giving Usain Bolt a head start in a 100-meter dash.
The Ravens kept the game tight with big plays of their own in the first half -- wide receiver Torrey Smith burned Bailey for touchdown receptions of 59 and 32 yards, and cornerback Corey Graham returned an interception for a 39-yard score -- but the momentum favored Denver. The crowd was rocking. The temperature was dropping toward single digits. The feeling was that the faster the tempo, the more the Broncos would drift into a dangerous groove.
Maybe that was the problem for Denver as well. Maybe the Broncos felt so comfortable in their home stadium, riding an 11-game winning streak, that they forgot they were fully capable of screwing up. That's the best explanation that can be offered, because the Broncos weren't giving any reasonable ones. As they quietly dressed in their locker room and trudged to their cars, they carried the same dazed expressions that fighters display after walking into unforeseeable left hooks.
The first big blow to the Broncos' chances was the knee injury that shelved running back Knowshon Moreno for most of the second half. Suddenly, backups Jacob Hester and Ronnie Hillman were handling the ball way too often. Hester didn't offer much of a running threat, and Hillman clearly was a liability in pass protection. The end result was the Broncos offense turning into something far more simplistic and predictable, with Manning increasingly facing more pressure on every possession.
Big-play receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker vanished for long stretches. Baltimore seemed willing to let Manning throw to tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme all afternoon. What was also noticeable was the waning confidence of the Broncos. The longer this game went on, the more they played like a team hoping to avoid a big mistake.
Of course, that's exactly what Denver got in the end. It came with 41 seconds left, the Ravens trailing 35-28 and the ball at the Baltimore 30-yard line. Even the most inebriated fan in the stadium understood that Baltimore's only hope rested in a desperation heave. When Flacco unleashed a deep throw, he found Jones drifting behind safety Rahim Moore and cornerback Tony Carter for a 70-yard touchdown.
Moore later took all the blame for the loss -- "If I had made that play, we'd be in here rejoicing right now," he said in the locker room -- but he wasn't the only Bronco who needed to take heat. As hapless as that error was, Denver still had other opportunities to win this game. It's just that its players weren't mentally prepared to grab them. They didn't know what to do once the pressure became too intense.
Fox had two timeouts when the Broncos got the ball back at their 20-yard line with 31 seconds left in regulation. That was more than enough time to move into position for a long field goal attempt, but the Broncos opted instead to run out the clock. Denver was just as conservative in the first overtime. An assortment of short throws and even shorter runs reinforced the notion that Denver had lost its killer instinct.
By the time Manning threw his second interception, the game was no longer in doubt. It was bad enough that he rolled to his right and threw across his body before Graham snatched his errant pass. The play was eerily reminiscent of Brett Favre tossing a similar, game-changing interception in Minnesota's loss to New Orleans in the NFC title game three years ago. Manning later admitted that it was "a bad throw. I was trying to make a play, and I'd like to have it back."
The truth was that he had no other choice by then. Manning had to make a desperate move, because the Broncos had become a desperate bunch. The very things that turned them into the NFL's hottest team were the things that disappeared Saturday night. There was no confidence, no risk-taking and definitely a shortage of options. The Broncos had become a team very similar to what they were with Tim Tebow under center, one hoping to find a miracle in the middle of mediocrity.
That's a tough place to be when this postseason was filled with such high expectations. It will be even harder to accept once Denver is a few days removed from this debacle. The players displayed class and professionalism in their postgame comments, but they know exactly what happened here. Baltimore is moving on to the AFC Championship Game for only one reason -- because Denver gave them an unforgettable gift.