For the Broncos, a puzzling, timid ending

“Thanks,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said afterward, “for bearing witness to one of the greatest football games you’re ever going to see.”

You could understand his enthusiasm without buying his analysis. From the Ravens’ point of view, Saturday’s four-hour, 11-minute marathon represented an unbelievable comeback that will go down in Baltimore sporting lore. From the Broncos’ point of view, the only thing remotely great about it was the play of a five-foot-five-inch kick returner.

The word that best describes the home team’s approach is timid, right up until the key play with 41 seconds left in regulation, when a 22-year-old safety suddenly turned into a risk-taker. All in all, the Broncos’ judgment — when to play it safe and when to take a chance — seemed poorly calibrated.

I was standing in the south end zone when their fingernails slipped off the ledge, in the waning light of a day so cold that field security personnel were deployed in full facial gear. Rahim Moore, the free safety still a month from his 23rd birthday, was cornerback Tony Carter’s deep help in a situation that demanded the soft, safe prevent defense that fans hate.

When Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco stepped up through an ineffectual pass rush and launched a prayer of a bomb up the east sideline toward speedster Jacoby Jones, Moore cut in front of the receiver to intercept or deflect the ball.

Too late, he realized he had misjudged the angle on Flacco’s rainbow. He stumbled backward like an outfielder who has misjudged a fly ball. The football sailed over both Broncos defenders and settled into Jones’ hands. He jogged into the end zone without resistance.

This was the Ravens’ impossible situation before that play began: Third-and-three at their own 30-yard line with 41 seconds remaining, no timeouts, down 35-28. They had already used a precious 28 seconds going seven yards on two plays.

The Broncos led the NFL in quarterback sacks this season. When they knew opponents had to throw, they feasted. But they got very little pressure on Flacco all day as the Ravens’ reconstructed offensive line held the Denver pass rush at bay. Flacco completed 18 of 34 passes for 331 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 116.2.

Which made him the best quarterback on the field by a substantial margin. This was quite a surprise considering how Peyton Manning had outplayed him a month earlier in Baltimore. Manning completed 28 of 43 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 88.3. Not bad, especially if you consider that his first interception bounced off receiver Eric Decker’s hands, but not exactly immortal, either, especially at the end.

Like the team around him, Manning seemed strangely timid for most of the afternoon. After that disastrous blown coverage in the final minute of regulation tied the game at 35, the Broncos got the ball back with 31 seconds showing and two timeouts. Manning took a knee and welcomed overtime.

Afterward, head coach John Fox explained this by pointing out what happened near the end of the first overtime quarter, when Manning threw behind Brandon Stokley into the arms of Ravens cornerback Corey Graham and put the visitors in position to kick the game-winning field goal.

“With 30 seconds it’s hard to go the length of the field and some bad stuff can happen, as you saw at the end of the game,” Fox said.

It was a contrived answer, like boilerplate when the actual explanation cannot be disclosed. For one thing, the analogy to the end of the fifth quarter was a poor one because the end of a fifth quarter in the postseason is like the end of a first or third. The game just continues. There’s no need to hurry up. So Manning’s mistake near the end of the fifth quarter was not a result of trying to do things in a hurry and bore no relation to the end of regulation other than the coincidence of a quarter winding down.

In addition, the Broncos didn’t have to go the length of the field at the end of regulation. They just needed to get into field goal range.

But they chose to be timid, just as they did in the series before Moore’s blown coverage. Having forced the Ravens to surrender the ball on downs, the Broncos took over at their own 31 with 3:12 remaining, leading by a touchdown. Two runs by rookie Ronnie Hillman, in for the injured Knowshon Moreno, gained 13 yards and a first down. The Ravens called their second timeout to stop the clock with 2:23 remaining.

The Broncos gave it to Hillman again, forcing Harbaugh to use his final timeout with 2:19 on the clock. They gave it to Hillman again, running the clock down to the 2-minute warning.

At this point, with the Broncos facing a third-and-seven, the Ravens no longer had any means of stopping the clock. The Broncos had a four-time Most Valuable Player at quarterback and one of the league’s most productive offenses. They needed a seven-yard pass completion to ice the game and move on to play for a berth in the Super Bowl.

Instead, they gave it to Hillman for a fifth consecutive time. He was stopped for no gain. They let the clock run, finally punting the ball back to the Ravens with 1:09 showing, setting the stage for Moore’s brain freeze.

“I just misjudged it, man,” the miserable young safety said afterward. “It was pathetic, you know? It’s my fault.”

The Broncos did what they could to deflect attention from Moore’s gaffe by talking about their other mistakes, and there were plenty to talk about. Champ Bailey, the normally reliable Pro Bowl cornerback, was consistently beaten by Ravens receiver Torrey Smith. Smith caught two touchdowns on him, and it could have been worse.

Von Miller, the Broncos’ Defensive Player of the Year candidate who finished the regular season third in the league in quarterback sacks with 18.5, eventually shared a sack with Elvis Dumervil in overtime, but was neutralized for most of the day by Ravens right tackle Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” fame.

Manning had a timid 6.7 yards per pass attempt, meaning he was usually checking it down, dinking and dunking, while Flacco’s remarkable 9.7 yards per attempt reflected Baltimore’s aggressive downfield passing game.

The Ravens’ three longest plays from scrimmage — the 70-yard bomb to Jones in the final 41 seconds, a 59-yard bomb to Smith over Bailey in the first quarter, and a 32-yard heave to Smith in front of Bailey in the second quarter — were all touchdowns.

The Broncos’ three longest plays from scrimmage were a 32-yard pass from Manning to Decker in the second quarter and two short gains extended by penalties. Manning showed no interest in throwing the ball deep.

“I couldn’t tell you what their defensive game plan was, but for a good bit there in the second half, (they had) a lot of two-deep safeties, man-to-man underneath,” Manning explained afterward. “They are going to take away some of those guys on the outside, which means you’ve got to beat them on the inside — the back out of the backfield, the tight end. That’s how you have to attack that defense.”

Maybe, but Manning threw to his backs eight times, his tight ends 11 times and his wideouts 24 times. He had only two pass plays that went for more than 20 yards.

Their big plays came not from Manning and the offense but from kick returner Trindon Holliday, who authored the longest punt return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history (90 yards) and the longest kickoff return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history (104 yards). No one had ever returned both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in the same playoff game. Trindon Holliday’s day will be in the record book for a long time.

If Manning lacked confidence in his ability to throw a deep, accurate ball in the frigid temperatures, he wouldn’t acknowledge it publicly. All season, he declined to discuss the progress of his comeback from four neck surgeries and the nerve regeneration in his throwing arm and hand it required, other than to say it was incomplete. We do know he decided to wear a glove on his throwing hand beginning with the final two regular season games because he was having issues gripping a cold ball.

My only basis for suspecting this was an issue Saturday is that Manning played with a timidity that simply isn’t characteristic of him. I find it hard to believe that any defensive game plan could turn Peyton Manning into Elvis Grbac.

For whatever reason, the Broncos’ stars for most of a 13-3 season were ordinary in the most important game of the year, and that includes Manning, Miller and Bailey. Following an 11-game winning streak to finish the regular season, they seemed oddly flat.

“If you don’t win, you get criticized on everything,” said Fox, dismissing all second guesses with a single swipe.

The Vegas sports book fantasy of Manning vs. Tom Brady in the conference championship is off the books. As they did in 1984 and 1996, the Broncos had both a playoff bye and home field advantage and still bowed out of the postseason at their first opportunity.

Manning called the loss “disappointing,” as great an understatement as Harbaugh’s analysis was an overstatement. To some extent, Manning, Fox and everybody else were covering for Moore, trying not to say, “Look, we had the game won with 41 seconds left, whaddaya want?”

Still, they also committed three turnovers that led to 17 Ravens points and kept the visitors in the game. Two of those were Manning interceptions, one of which deflected off Decker’s hands. The third was a Manning fumble when no one was open and he had to pull the ball down in the pocket. Again, we don’t know if his ability to grip the ball was an issue there. And the defense, ranked in the league’s top five, surrendered 479 yards and innumerable big plays that kept Baltimore in the game.

Fox is presumably responsible for the decision to have Manning take a knee with two timeouts and 31 seconds left in regulation. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is presumably responsible for the play calls with his team leading by a touchdown near the end of regulation, although Manning said the running play on third-and-seven with two minutes remaining was an audible on his part.

So you can blame the coaches or you can blame Moore or you can blame Bailey or Miller or Manning. Or you can blame them all. For 59 minutes and 19 seconds the only Bronco who played at a championship level was the kick returner. Then, 41 seconds from victory, a 22-year-old safety had a brain cramp that will haunt him and fans of his team for a long time.

Of course, you can also blame the officials, as many fans did. The crew led by Bill Vinovich seemed particularly inept, calling 18 penalties and constantly stopping the flow of the game. The Broncos seemed unable to get into a rhythm with their no-huddle offense.

On Manning’s first interception, the one that bounced off Decker’s hands and turned into a Ravens defensive touchdown, replays seemed to show Decker was hit before the ball arrived. Broncos fans found the absence of a flag particularly galling because the previous Ravens touchdown had been aided by a dubious pass interference penalty against Carter.

But frankly, the Broncos weren’t much better than the officials. Even after Moore’s mistake, even after they declined an opportunity to move the ball at the end of regulation, the Broncos had the entire overtime, slightly more than a quarter, in which to score three points and win the game. Of the 16 minutes, 42 seconds of overtime, the Broncos had possession of the ball for just 6:30. Their deepest penetration was their own 39-yard line.

“The worst thing about it is we’re going home off a play I could have made, and I’m here to make,” Moore said, standing stoically in front of his locker and answering every question.

“Coach Fox and his staff and everybody is relying on me to make that play. I didn’t make it. That’s what I do. I’ve been blessed with those skills and I didn’t use what I was blessed with today. But at the end of the day, it was a great season. I’m sorry it ended like this, but next year it won’t.”

Could be. The last time the Broncos were 13-3 and a No. 1 seed, the year was 1996 and the Jaguars came to Denver and shocked them. John Elway & Co. came back the next year to win the first of two consecutive Super Bowls. So maybe this year was their dress rehearsal for a similar run behind Manning. Certainly, they have an excellent young core of players.

But when it came time to rise to the occasion Saturday, the Broncos couldn’t do it. They were out-coached and outplayed by a team they had dominated four weeks before. And they never showed the swagger that defines a champion.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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