DENVER - Welcome to NFL immortality, Joe Flacco.
Somewhere up there in the all-time playoff archives near the "Hail Mary" by Staubach and the "Immaculate Reception" by Franco now lives the "Flacco Fling" by the Baltimore Ravens quarterback.
One big throw down the sideline, 70 make-or-break yards on a wing and a prayer — a high, arcing touchdown pass that soared through the icy air, flew over two defenders, landed in the hands of Jacoby Jones, saved the game for Baltimore and kept Ray Lewis' 17-year career going at least one more week.
The record will show Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime Saturday to give the Ravens a 38-35 victory over Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. But it was so much more. It was a crazy, back-and-forth instant classic of an AFC divisional playoff game. The highlight? That would be Flacco's game-tying touchdown to Jones on third-and-3 from the 30 with 31 seconds left in regulation and no timeouts.
"At that point," Flacco said, "you have to start taking shots. You have to get a little lucky."
And while Flacco gets to celebrate that throw, Manning will have a long off-season to think about a really bad one.
On Denver's second possession of overtime, he stopped and threw across his body to the middle of the field and into the arms of Ravens cornerback Corey Graham at Denver's 45. Baltimore (12-6) ran five plays and gained 16 yards before Tucker sailed his winning kick inside the right upright.
The Manning throw, intended for Brandon Stokley, was one that quarterbacks from junior high to the pros are advised not to make. It's a throw that unraveled all the good Manning has accomplished during this, his comeback season from neck surgery during which he threw for 37 touchdowns and led the Broncos (13-4) to top seeding in the AFC.
"Yeah, bad throw," Manning said. "Probably the decision wasn't great either. I thought I had an opening, and I didn't get enough on it, and I was trying to make a play and certainly a throw I'd like to have back."
Lewis, who led the Ravens with 17 tackles over this nearly 77-minute game in 13-degree weather, kneeled down to the ground and put his helmet on the rock-solid turf when it was over.
"I've never been a part of a game so crazy in my life," he said.
After he thaws out, the Ravens, 9 1/2-point underdogs for this one, will get ready for a game at either New England or Houston, who meet Sunday for the other spot in the AFC title game.
This game, the longest since the Browns beat the New York Jets 23-20 in 1987, was an all-timer — up there with San Diego's 41-38 double-overtime victory over Miami when it comes to drama, momentum shifts and the unexpected. But Flacco's throw might best be bookended next to one made by Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, who famously brought the term "Hail Mary" to football after his game-winning toss to Drew Pearson beat Minnesota in the 1975 playoffs.
Staubach was near midfield when he threw his.
Flacco, who finished with 331 yards and three scores, was standing at the 25 for his throw, buying time in the pocket when he saw Jones sprinting down the right sideline into double coverage.
Defensive back Tony Carter slowed up and let Jones streak by him. Instead of staying step for step with Jones, safety Rahim Moore tried to leap and knock down the ball. Flacco, who throws the high, deep ball as well as anyone, got it over Moore's head and into Jones' hands.
"I started to step up in the pocket and I kept my eye on the safety's depth at that point," Flacco said. "Just felt I had a shot of maybe getting over him. At that point in the game, you don't have any timeouts, when you've got to go a pretty decent length you've got to start taking shots at some point. It happened to work out."
Jones caught it and pranced into the end zone, blowing kisses toward the crowd.
"I was kissing to God. I was thanking the Lord," Jones said. "I don't disbelieve in myself. I've been believing in myself since I was born. Never no disbelief."
Moore was on the verge of tears after the game.
"The loss, it was my fault," Moore said. "I got a little too happy. It was pathetic. My fault. Next time I'll make that play."
The teams were tied at 14 after the first quarter, 21 at halftime, 28 after three quarters and at 35-35 after regulation.
They punted three times to start overtime, the last of them setting up Denver on its 7-yard line.
Manning was moving the Broncos along slowly and steadily. But on second-and-6 from the 38, he rolled to his right, stopped, planted and threw across the field toward Stokley at the right hash mark. Graham stepped in front of the receiver for the interception. The Ravens D-back also had a first-quarter interception, which he returned 39 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
On many days, the two interceptions would have made him the star of the game. On this day — he was just another player making big plays for Baltimore. Even he was amazed at the Flacco-Jones touchdown.
"It was one of those miraculous plays," Graham said. "I don't think it'll ever be forgotten."
The wind chill at kickoff was 2 degrees, and Manning, wearing an orange-and-grey glove to get more feel in the icy weather, fell to 0-4 lifetime in playoff games when the temperature is 40 or less. He finished 28 for 43 for 290 yards and accounted for all three Denver turnovers — the two picks and a lost fumble that set up the touchdown that tied the game at 28 late in the third quarter.
Combined, the mistakes nullified a record-setting day for returner Trindon Holliday, who returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 104 yards for another score. Both were playoff records for longest returns, as was the 248 total return yards he had.
This was, more or less, the unthinkable for the Broncos, who came in on an 11-game winning streak and the odds-on favourite, at 3-1, to win the Super Bowl — in Manning's hometown of New Orleans, no less.
Instead, this loss goes down with the most devastating in Denver history. Right there with the 30-27 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 4, 1997 — another year when Denver looked very much like Super Bowl material.
"Certainly we did a lot of good things this season, but as of right now, it's hard to think about anything besides the loss tonight," Manning said.
Baltimore, meanwhile, will get ready for its second straight trip to the AFC title game.
Last year, Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal against New England that would have tied that game at the end of regulation.
This year, the Ravens had Tucker, and though the temperature was cold and the ball was hard, coach John Harbaugh showed zero desire to get the ball closer after Ray Rice ran for 11 yards to the Denver 34 near the end of the first overtime.
Tucker was making them from 67 yards in pre-game warmups and was practicing during the break between overtime periods.
"I always feel good when I go out on the field," he said. "Not many people get to do this. This is a heck of a lot of fun."
While he finished the day 1 for 1, Broncos kicker Matt Prater missed his only try, from 52 yards, when he hit the turf, then the ball, on an attempt at the end of the first half.
Broncos coach John Fox will be second-guessed about the decision to go for the long kick, especially considering the way Flacco responded: Throwing and completing three straight passes after the miss for a 58-yard touchdown drive that tied the game at 21 going into halftime.
The touchdown was a 32-yard connection to Torrey Smith, marking the second time Smith beat Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. Smith also got behind the 12-time Pro Bowler for a 59-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
"The first one — I lost it," Bailey said. "The second one, he just made a great play. I was in position, he made a good play. That's why he's in the league."
All part of an uncharacteristic day for the Broncos, who routed Baltimore on its home field, 34-17, less than a month ago.
But on this day, the coldest playoff game in Broncos history, these were different teams playing for different stakes.
Flacco improved to 7-4 in playoff game. Rice finished with 131 yards and a score. With Lewis manning the middle of the field, the Broncos offence didn't look like the well-oiled machine it had over a winning streak dating to a 35-24 comeback win over San Diego in October.
The Ravens, meanwhile, looked more like the team that began the season 9-2 instead of the one that finished it losing four of their last five. And boy did they and the Broncos put on a show.
"Thanks for bearing witness to one of the greatest football games you're ever going to see," Harbaugh said. "That football game did football proud."
Notes: The Broncos fell to 13-4 at home lifetime in the playoffs. ... Manning tied Dan Marino for fourth most touchdowns in post-season history. He also matched Brett Favre for most career playoff losses, with 11. ... Lewis' 17 tackles were a season high. ... Anquan Boldin, shut out in the first meeting between the teams, had six catches for 71 yards. ... Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno left early in the second half with an injured right knee.
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