With Baltimore trailing by seven points with just 31 seconds to go, woeful Broncos' coverage allowed Jacoby Jones to score a 70-yard touchdown to take the game to overtime. But the first period of overtime was the first scoreless period of this see-saw encounter and the outcome was not settled until Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yard field goal in second overtime to seal the 38-35 victory.
After all the pre-game talk of Peyton Manning's playoff record and ability to deal with the exceptionally cold conditions in Mile High stadium, a sensational start saw two touchdowns scored before the quarterback had even made his way onto the field. And after his first two touches the Broncos found themselves trailing 14-7.
Denver's Trindon Holliday opened the scoring with a spectacular punt return less than three minutes in - at least partially enabled by some poor Ravens' special teams coverage. But Baltimore responded with quick touchdowns as Joe Flacco found Torrey Smith with a 59-yard pass before Corey Graham intercepted Manning and ran in a 39-yard score.
Manning found Brandon Stokley with a 15-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 14-14 after the first quarter.
The rest of regulation time followed the same pattern - a touchdown for Denver followed by a reply from Baltimore. Holliday added a 104-yard kick-off return touchdown to his 90-yard punt return - the first time two kicks have been returned for TDs in an NFL playoff.
The Broncos seemed to have finally closed the game down when the Ravens failed to convert a fourth-down with three minutes remaining and trailing by seven points. But Denver failed to run-out the clock with Manning inexplicably opting for a third-down running play which failed to gain the necessary yards. The Denver punt was followed by Jones' crowd-silencing score as he took advantage of some awful coverage from Denver safety Rahim Moore.
The Ravens - with defensive leader Ray Lewis ensuring at least one more game in his inspirational career - were led to victory by Flacco who completed 18-of-34 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Ray Rice rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown from 30 carries while receiver Smith had two touchdowns and 98 yards.
Baltimore will play New England or Houston in the AFC championship game next weekend.
The loss will be a bitter disappointment for Manning, who had been hoping for a Super Bowl appearance in his first season for Denver after missing last season with Indianapolis following several neck surgeries.
Manning, who threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns, but was intercepted when Corey Graham superbly picked off a pass intended for Stokley. Six plays later came the decisive final score.
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image: © Keith Allison