Raven’s Down Denver

As the Baltimore Ravens celebrated winning one of the best playoff games in NFL history, the players came off the field yelling, “No one thought we would win.”

The Ravens made a convincing statement in Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game, riding big plays from Joe Flacco and a wave of emotion surrounding outgoing leader Ray Lewis. Their 38-35 double-overtime victory over the top-seeded Broncos was epic and thrilling. But it’s not the fact that the long-shot Ravens won. It’s how they won. What makes you believe in the Ravens more than ever is how unbelievable the triumph was.

How does a team that lost four of its last five regular-season games (the Ravens) beat a team that had won 11 straight (the Broncos)? How does Corey Graham, a Pro Bowl special-teams player last season, intercept Peyton Manning twice, including in overtime to set up the winning score? And how does Jacoby Jones get behind two Denver defenders to catch a soaring, 70-yard touchdown from Flacco to tie the game with 31 seconds remaining in regulation? By the time Justin Tucker‘s 47-yard field goal sliced inside the right upright to end the fourth-longest game in NFL history, there was a sense that this was more than a special victory. This is a special team.

There always seems to be a team that gets hot late and makes an improbable championship run. The hot team this season is the one that emerged victorious after braving 4 hours, 11 minutes in minus-1 wind chill temperatures. It’s a Ravens team that is headed to its third AFC Championship Game in five seasons but never before in such improbable fashion.

“We could be a team of destiny,” running back Ray Rice said. “But I think we’re a team of believers.”

It’s hard not to believe in the Ravens after witnessing the final minute of the fourth quarter. The Ravens trailed 35-28 with 41 seconds remaining and no timeouts. They stood 70 yards from the end zone on third down.

The Ravens’ hopes didn’t look much brighter when Flacco dropped back and immediately felt pressure coming from both sides. Then, right as he saw a receiver getting behind the defense, Flacco stepped up and heaved the ball 54 yards in the air. Jones, who described the pass as a pretty spiral punt that landed in his hands, caught the ball at the 20-yard line before outrunning cornerback Tony Carter and safety Rahim Moore to the end zone.

If Nashville can have the Music City Miracle, the Ravens can have the Mile-High Miracle.

“You have to get a little bit lucky. It worked out,” said Flacco, who averaged 18.3 yards per completion. “We’re able to take a shot, and everybody came through when that one opportunity kind of arose.”

How much were the odds stacked against the Ravens at that point? According to ESPN Stats & Information’s win probability model, Denver had a 97.2 percent chance of winning the game before the Jones touchdown. In other words, Flacco might have had a better shot at winning the lottery than this game.

“It was one of those miraculous plays,” said Graham, who watched the play from the sidelines. “I don’t think it will ever be forgotten.”

Before this game, Ravens safety Ed Reed watched a piece on television about how the Immaculate Reception occurred in the 1972 season and The Comeback (the Bills rallying from a 32-point deficit) happened in the 1992 season. Now, Flacco’s desperation pass will be added to NFL lore.

“I was just watching that not knowing today would be one of those special moments in time,” Reed said.

So, does Reed get the feeling the Ravens are one of those special teams?

“We knew it was a special team regardless of what happened at the end of this,” he said.

Reed is right. The Ravens have bonded this season over adversity, from the passing of owner Art Modell just before the start of the season to the death of Torrey Smith‘s younger brother in Week 3. They have been able to overcome injuries to linebackers Lewis andTerrell Suggs, and watched both return to the team when many initially thought both would be lost for the season. And don’t forget about the Ravens’ other miracle this season — Rice converting fourth-and-29 in San Diego.

 Ray Lewis
The ride continues for Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

Still, the Ravens looked like the least likely of the AFC teams to make a Super Bowl run. They backed into the playoffs with a disastrous December, which included losing four out of five games and the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The turning point came four days before Baltimore’s first playoff game, when Lewis announced this was going to be his “last ride.”

“We’re dealing with something where everything is ‘a last’ for us. It’s the last game or last drive for Ray Lewis,” Rice said. “Peyton is coming back next year. [Colts coach Chuck] Pagano is coming back to coach next year. We love them guys, but it’s the last for our guy.”

Lewis and the Ravens have embraced the underdog role, and few gave the Ravens much of a chance in the divisional playoff game. Baltimore was a nine-point underdog, and for good reason. The Ravens had lost nine straight to Manning. They had lost to the Broncos by 17 points just four weeks ago. And the Ravens were traveling across two time zones on a short week of rest.

None of that mattered as the Ravens battled back in a game in which they trailed by seven points four times. The Ravens battled back after giving up a 90-yard touchdown on the game’s first punt and a 104-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff of the second half. It was the ultimate test in postseason resiliency.

“If I miss anything about my career, it will be to listen to what people say you can’t do and then go do it,” Lewis said. “There was only one way to cap last week, and that was to win this week. And that’s what we, as a team, spoke about. We said: ‘What if we do the impossible?'”

The Ravens await the winner of Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Houston Texans. Baltimore players said they didn’t care whom they faced, and you tend to believe them. This playoff run is about the Ravens and a personal mission that began last season when Lee Evans failed to catch that pass in the AFC Championship Game.

“We feel like it’s going to take a lot for someone to kick us off that field come the AFC Championship Game,” Flacco said. “We know what it felt like last year when we walked off that field without that win. We know what we’ve put in to get back to this point.”

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