First Down/Fourth Down: Rahim Moore helps Joe Flacco get it done
The Baltimore Ravens were down and seemingly out Saturday, needing 70 yards and a touchdown in the closing seconds to avoid a disappointing loss in Denver.
And then, inexplicably, the Broncos' pass coverage broke down completely.
Joe Flacco, with the clock running and his team out of timeouts, heaved one up long to Jacoby Jones, who to that point had not made a single catch. On this play, though, Jones somehow managed to slip behind cornerback Chris Harris and, even more amazingly, deep safety Rahim Moore.
Moore leaped up at the last moment, only to watch the ball slip over his outstretched fingers and into Jones' arms. The Baltimore receiver then waltzed into the end zone for a jaw-dropping tying touchdown.
It was the last moment of embarrassment for a Denver secondary that absolutely bombed in the team's 38-35 double overtime loss.
Many of the issues were Champ Bailey's. The veteran cornerback endured an absolute nightmare of an afternoon, as he was burned by Torrey Smith repeatedly. Smith caught a pair of long touchdowns in the first half and nearly had a third, if not for a Flacco overthrow.
The Broncos regrouped in the second half, limiting Flacco's big plays and holding Baltimore's offense mostly in check. That is, until Harris and Moore gaffed at the worst possible moment.
More of the best and worst from Baltimore's thrilling win.
First Down: Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
If there were any lingering questions about Flacco's future as the Ravens' quarterback, Saturday put them to rest. The pending free agent threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns in the Ravens' stunning upset.
More importantly, he also avoided the killer mistake that has haunted him so often in the past -- and that Peyton Manning made instead by firing an interception in OT.
Jones was the hero on the game-tying grab, but it was Smith that helped put Baltimore in position for that play in the first place. He demolished Bailey, in a matchup that Bailey felt confident he could win. Flacco kept going back to his young receiver too, at least through the first half. The resulting connections helped Baltimore keep pace with the favored Broncos.
Fourth Down: Jack Del Rio and John Fox.
Denver won 11 in a row to close the year, and it was far from a solo show by Manning. The Broncos' defense finished fourth in points against and second in yardage.
Saturday, however, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had his lunch handed to him.
Del Rio failed to figure out any way to slow the Baltimore offense, either through the air or on the ground. The Ravens racked up 479 yards of total offense and, once they figured out how to start converting third downs, proved almost unstoppable.
The Broncos made no adjustments to the Smith-Bailey matchup in the first half, and never figured out how to get to Flacco (Denver recorded just one sack). Save for Moore's awful coverage late, that effort still would have been enough to get through to the conference title game, but the Broncos' D was living on the edge all day.
And as for Fox ... taking a knee to go to overtime, when you have Peyton Manning, 30 seconds and two timeouts? A recipe for an upset.
First Down: Trindon Holliday.
Holliday did what he could to carry the Broncos through this game. He started the scoring with a 90-yard punt return for a score, then took the second half's opening kickoff back 104 yards to paydirt -- in the process, becoming the first player in NFL history with two TD returns in one playoff game.
Even though the Ravens put the clamps on Holliday late, his performance deserves to be remembered.
Fourth Down: Ed Reed.
If the Ravens are to continue this impressive run through the AFC playoffs, they likely will need their star safety to turn in a much stronger performance next week. Reed finished with just three tackles Sunday and disappeared for huge stretches of the game.
His worst whiff came on Demaryius Thomas' touchdown, which looked like a possible game-winner. Reed had the only real shot at Thomas on an inside screen, but came up empty.
Reed also fielded a punt at his own 5 in overtime and was tackled immediately. Flacco's clutch play helped bail him out for that mistake.
First Down: Terrell Suggs.
On the flip side of things for Baltimore's defense was Suggs. Still playing with that painful torn biceps, Suggs nevertheless took the fight to Denver All-Pro Ryan Clady on Sunday. Suggs finished with eight tackles and two impressive sacks of Manning, plus he broke up a pass and forced a fumble (though the latter was negated by two Baltimore penalties, including one against Suggs).
Suggs' longtime teammate Ray Lewis also kept his career alive, leading Baltimore with a whopping 17 tackles on Saturday.
Fourth Down: The NFL's decision to use "All-Star crews" to officiate the playoffs.
This is the second week in a row that an officiating crew has been in the negative column. And part of the problem is that the NFL has opted to split up the crews it used in the regular season in favor of "All-Star" groups -- crews formed by placing all the highest-rated officials together.
In theory, that should work. In practice, it has been a mess.
Referee Bill Vinovich and his mix-and-match crew turned in an ugly showing Sunday. There were 18 penalties in this game, and both a few of the calls made and some non-calls were hard to figure. Worse yet, on the play where Suggs forced a fumble by Manning, the crew needed several minutes to sort out a pair of fouls against Baltimore.
All in all, it was an uneven, inconsistent showing by the officials.
First Down: Baltimore's offensive line.
Denver led the league in sacks during the regular season with 52, and there may not be a more disruptive pass rusher in the NFL than Von Miller. Baltimore still managed to almost totally negate all of the Broncos' impact up front Saturday.
The only sack Flacco took all afternoon came in overtime, when he held the ball a couple of beats too long on a 3rd-and-2. Even then, he had time to get rid of the football.
Oh, and Ray Rice's 131-yard day on the ground was no fluke.
Fourth Down: Peyton Manning.
And we close with the headliner ...
Manning fired three touchdown passes, two of them (one to Brandon Stokley an one to Knowshon Moreno) absolutely picturesque. But there is no getting around that interception in overtime, when Manning made the unacceptable mistake of throwing late back across his body.
Corey Graham, who deserves a special "First Down" nod, picked Manning off there to set up Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal. Graham earlier took an interception back for six, to give Baltimore an early 14-7 lead.
The loss, in a biting chill in Denver, dropped Manning to 0-4 in playoff games played in temperatures of 40 degrees or less. He's also just 9-11 overall in the postseason and has not recorded a playoff win since making the Super Bowl three seasons ago. We've come to expect that Manning will figure out a defense as a game goes along. He never really settled in against Baltimore, and the game ultimately came down to his glaring overtime mistake.