- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Was this magical season really going to go down like this? It couldn’t. Not with Peyton Manning on the Denver sideline. He’d make it better. He’d have overtime to counter a miraculous Joe Flacco bomb to Jones with 31 seconds to go in regulation Saturday at Sports Authority Field.
Right? He’d have to. Right? He’s Peyton Manning. In one season, he turned the Denver Broncos into perhaps the best team in football. He’d get it done.
Yet what the Flacco-Jones connection did was give Manning another opportunity to add to his playoff misery.
And he did.
This 38-35 Baltimore victory -- sealed 1 minute, 42 seconds into the second overtime -- will always be remembered not only for the Baltimore Bomb (really, can you count five better playoff plays?) but also as another postseason hit on Manning’s legacy.
With Denver trying to drive for a game-winning score late in the first overtime, Manning made a poor decision and was intercepted by Baltimore cornerback Corey Graham at the Denver 45. Baltimore won on a 47-yard field goal six plays later.
The interception was Manning’s third turnover of the game. The turnovers resulted in 17 points for Baltimore, including an interception return for a score by Graham in the first quarter on a deflected pass.
The loss is another chapter in the one flaw in Manning’s career -- he has not always been clutch in the postseason. Manning is 9-11 in the playoffs and tied for the most playoff losses by a quarterback. Manning also fell to 0-4 in playoff games when the temperature was below 40 degrees; it was in the single digits at the end of the game.
Is it fair to pin this loss on Manning and his lack of playoff success?
“He was trying to make a play,” Denver coach John Fox said of Manning’s last interception. “There were a lot of different plays in that game that were costly. That was one of many.”
Fox is correct. This loss was not all on Manning, not by a long shot. He had moments where he shined, but the stable of Denver goats in this game is crowded.
Second-year safety Rahim Moore might never be forgiven in Denver for allowing Jones to get behind him on the desperation touchdown pass. All Moore had to do was play normal defense, and he blew it. Future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey gave up two touchdown passes to Torrey Smith. Late in the second quarter, Fox called for a long field goal attempt by Matt Prater, which failed and set up a Baltimore touchdown just before the half. Late in the game, Fox got conservative. The vaunted Denver pass rush was nonexistent for much of a game that saw the NFL's No. 2 defense savaged. It also wasn’t a great day for the officials, who made several questionable calls.
In all, it was the perfect formula to suddenly end the season of the NFL’s hottest team and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Denver rode an 11-game winning streak into the game. Talk of the Super Bowl was legitimate.
But it all ended in a flurry of crazy occurrences. And Manning -- who had beaten the Ravens nine consecutive times, including last month in Baltimore -- wasn’t there to save his team.
It should have never gotten to the point of Manning needing to rescue the Broncos, though. According to ESPN Stats & Information’s win-probability model, Denver had a 97.2 percent chance of capturing the game before the Jones touchdown.
Manning did enough in regulation to help his team win, despite the first two turnovers. But he also was not perfect. He wasn’t at his best, whether it was due to the weather or the pressure of leading his new franchise to a playoff win.
“I probably wasn’t quite as good as I wanted to be,” Manning said, “and it probably cost us a couple scoring opportunities.”
A master of the short pass, Manning had his first pick on a throw outside the pocket this season on his fatal interception, an example of his struggles throwing short Saturday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning completed 74 percent of his passes for 10 yards or fewer this season; Saturday he completed 65 percent.
He didn’t get much help, though. Manning was under constant duress in the second half. He dropped back 24 times and was pressured 10 times, according to ESPN Stats & Information, after not being pressured at all in 22 drop-backs in the first half. Manning couldn't single-handedly make up for the sudden lack of protection.
For the past three months, everything went right for Manning and the Broncos. On Saturday, it all crumbled.
This goes down as a miserable end to a wonderful first season in Denver for Manning. When the shock wears off, Denver will be proud of its campaign. The Broncos weren't expected to be in this game. Manning wasn’t expected to play at an MVP level, and Denver wasn’t expected to be a Super Bowl contender.
The future is still bright for Denver as it licks the wounds from its most hurtful playoff loss since 1996, when Jacksonville stunned the top-seeded Broncos in Denver. The Broncos responded by winning the next two Super Bowls in John Elway’s final two seasons at the ages of 37 and 38.
Manning will turn 37 in March, right about the time the Broncos, whose staff will now coach in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, will be planning to wipe off the stink of the defeat and try again.
Next season there will be bigger expectations and constant questions about whether the Broncos can rebound from this horrible day. Until then, we’ll all talk about another disappointing playoff outing for one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
5hEric D. Williams