John Harbaugh and Ray Rice knelt on the sideline, holding on to one another, each probably holding his breath, and then Harbaugh planted a kiss on the right temple of his running back. Ray Lewis fell to the ground in disbelieving bliss, looking like he would bury his helmetless head into the grass. Moments later, Lewis and Peyton Manning, two legends of the game, exchanged a hug and a handshake.
Those were the pertinent images in the denouement of one of the most exciting and entertaining postseason games in NFL history, a contest filled with flash, drama and suspense from the opening kickoff until rookie Justin Tucker's 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime gave the Ravens a 38-35 victory over the Broncos in an AFC divisional playoff game Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver.
Twenty-eight points, 14 by each team, were scored in the first 11 minutes. There were three returns for touchdowns -- Trindon Holliday's 90-yard punt return and 104-yard kickoff return for Denver and Corey Graham's 39-yard interception of Manning for Baltimore. The score was tied five times.
By the time the game ended in a deep freeze (by then the temperature had fallen from 15 degrees at kickoff to the low single digits), the fourth-seeded Ravens had ended the top-seeded Broncos' 11-game winning streak and advanced to next Sunday's AFC championship game for the second year in a row. They will meet either the Patriots or the Texans.
Two of the story lines coming into Saturday's game involved Lewis, who recently announced this would be his final season, and Manning, the former Colts star who had an amazing 2012, his first year in Denver, after missing the entire 2011 season because of multiple neck spinal fusion surgeries. Thus, the moment when the two future Hall of Famers congratulated each other afterward seemed so felicitous. Lewis was practically giddy as a television analyst interviewed him on the field.
"God is amazing when you believe in Him," said the 37-year-old Lewis. "Man believes in the possible. God believes in the impossible."
Baltimore's victory certainly was improbable. The Ravens lost three games in a row and four of five in a late-season swoon, and were prohibitive underdogs against a Broncos team that hadn't tasted defeat since Week 5. But perhaps energized by their wild-card win over the Colts six days earlier, the Ravens came into the mile-high altitude of Denver on a short week and pulled off the upset. They now are one win away from advancing to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
The Ravens had to overcome multiple obstacles to win this game, not the least of which were Holliday's two scoring returns, which set an NFL postseason record. They had lost nine consecutive games to Manning, including a 34-17 decision at home in Week 15. And they were playing with an offensive line that had been reconstructed for the playoffs.
On the other sideline, Manning played with orange gloves on both of his hands for the first time. He wore a glove on his throwing hand in the final two games of the regular season, when he passed for 643 yards and six touchdowns, because nerve damage in his right arm, a residual from his neck surgeries, prevented him from getting a good grip on the ball in cold weather. He completed 28 of 43 attempts for 290 yards and three TDs on Saturday, but two of his three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) led to 14 Baltimore points.
Rice, who came under fire for his own grip after he uncharacteristically fumbled twice last week against the Colts -- in 1,529 career regular season touches, he had lost the ball only six times -- handled the ball flawlessly as he rushed 30 times for 131 yards and a touchdown.
If you want to point the finger at one area of Denver's game, blame the pass defense. It was plain awful. Perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey was beaten twice for touchdowns by second-year Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith -- and Bailey would have given up a third scoring pass if Flacco hadn't overthrown Smith on another play.
The Broncos maintained control throughout the game largely because Holliday, who, at 5-foot-5, is the shortest player in the league, came up big. The former sprint champion -- he ran a 10.07 100 meters at the 2007 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, finishing second only to Tyson Gay -- displayed his world-class speed on his two scoring returns. The third-year player was on Houston's roster for the first five games this season (all victories) before joining the Broncos and playing in 11 more victories. But just when it looked like Holliday's perfect season would continue, Flacco found his inner Johnny Unitas.
Baltimore trailed 35-28 when owner Steve Bisciotti texted Harbaugh, his coach, apparently for the first time ever during a game. Harbaugh shared the text with his players in a jubilant locker room after the game.
"I have never texted you during a game," Harbaugh said, reading Bisciotti's message. "We are down, 35-28. But I think it's the best game I've ever seen us play in the playoffs since 2000 (when Baltimore won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season).
The Ravens still trailed, 35-28, with less than a minute to play in regulation. It was at that moment that the oft-criticized Flacco launched the biggest pass of his career -- and the Denver pass defense misfired yet again. With Baltimore facing 3rd-and-3 at its own 30, Flacco lofted a long, high pass into the frigid air, where it seemed to hang forever until it fell into the hands of Jacoby Jones, who caught it in the midst of extremely bad coverage by cornerback Chris Harris and safety Rahim Moore and galloped into the end zone for a game-tying, 70-yard touchdown.
One overtime plus 102 seconds of a second extra period later, Tucker, who was an amazing 30 of 33 in field goal attempts during the regular season, helped continue Lewis' last ride.
"Our team is so confident, and everything went against us," Lewis said, "but we found a way to come here together and we're leaving together. It's just awesome."