The pass seemingly went higher than it did far.
Not that the Joe Flacco pass didn't go far enough. By the time it landed increduously in Jacoby Jones' arms with mere seconds left in regulation, the Baltimore Ravens were on their way to delivering the Broncos a crushing, 38-35 two-overtime defeat on a frigid Saturday afternoon turned bone-chilling evening at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
How did the underdog Ravens hand the No, 1-seeded, heavily favored the Broncos the second-most devastating defeat in their history and worst in 16 years?
It started when Flacco, the always big-armed and now big-game Ravens' quarterback, let the ball rip seemingly out of desperation. The Broncos were up 35-28 thanks to a touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas midway through the fourth quarter.
There was a considerable 70 yards and less than 40 seconds remaining when Flacco threw. Broncos cornerback Tony Carter let the ball go past him. He was playing zone and when Jones ran past on the right sideline, Carter didn't put up a fight.
No problem. Broncos safety Rahim Moore was back for the rescue. Well-positioned. Knock it down and it's fourth down. Moore leaped, reached up and ...
Uh oh. He misjudged the ball. It sailed over his head, right into Jones' arms. Touchdown. 35-35. A bundled and erstwhile uproarious crowd, which had braved more than 4 hours of football amid single-digit temperatures, was stunned into silence.
The last time the Broncos played the Ravens, just four weeks earlier in Baltimore, they jumped to a 31-3 fourth quarter lead before coasting.
Yet, it's the Ravens who are advancing to the AFC championship game next Sunday against either the New England Patriots or Houston Texans.
This was easily the Broncos most heartbreaking loss since losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a second-round playoff game at Mile High following the 1996 season.
After the Flacco-to-Jones touchdown tied it 35-35 with 31 seconds left in regulation, the teams battled through a scoreless first overtime and then Ravens cornerback Corey Graham intercepted Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning for the second time. The first pick he returned for a touchdown early in the game.
On the second one, Manning made the ill-advised decision to throw back across his body after rolling right. He didn't have enough zip on the ball to get it to Brandon Stokley.
After the Graham interception gave Baltimore the ball at the Broncos' 45, the Ravens moved it just far enough for Justin Tucker to kick a 47-yard, game-winning field goal.
The loss was the first of the season for Trindon Holliday, who deserved better. the 5-foot-5 Holliday had two touchdown returns that should have been the difference in a 35-28 Broncos victory. He brought afterburners to a playoff game that was 13 degrees at game time, 9 degrees with a windchill of -4 at halftime.
Until the postseason, Holliday a personal team record of 16-0 -- 5-0 with the Houston Texans; 11-0 with the Broncos. T then in the Broncos' first postseason game had touchdown returns of 90 yards off a punt before his team's first offensive possession and 104 yards on the second half-opening kickoff.
Not since Rickey Henderson in his prime has there been so many lead off home runs. Despite Holliday's heroics, the Broncos struggled to put away the Ravens. The score was 21-21 at halftime as Baltimore got a pick six off a deflected pass and two long touchdown receptions by Torrey Smith, who beat star cornerback Champ Bailey on both.
After Holliday's early punt return, Smith got past Bailey on a post pattern. With no safety help and a perfectly thrown pass by Flacco, Smith raced past Bailey for a 59-yard scoring reception that tied the game, 7-7.
On the Broncos' first offensive series, Manning threw a quick slant to Eric Decker, who was both covered and mugged. The ball deflected in the air and CoreyGraham cradled it, then ran 39 yards for a touchdown. It was 14-7 Ravens. Suddenly, the Broncos and their bundled up crowd of 76,603 understood they were in for a game.
Manning remained patient. His offensive line gave him ample protection on nearly every throw, yet Manning took the short, underneath pass the split-second he saw it. He finished his air-control drives with two perfectly thrown red zone touchdown passes -- 15 yards to Stokley to the right side of the north end zone; 14 yards to Knowshon Moreno to the right side of the north end zone.
It was 21-14 Broncos and they were moving more at the 2 minute warning of the first half, first-and-10 at the Ravens' 36. But the timing was off on a key pass between Manning and Demaryius Thomas, the drive stalled and Matt Prater mishit a 52-yard field goal try.
With good field position, Flacco completed back-to-back, first-down passes, then drilled a 32-yard touchdown to Smith, who again beat Bailey.
Instead of 28-14 Broncos, as seemed possible at the 2-minute warning, it was 21-21 at the half. The 14-point swing wasn't nearly as pronounced as the last time these teams met last month in Baltimore, where Broncos cornerback Chris Harris turned a Ravens' goal-to-go into a 98-yard interception return.
But there was no mistaking the Ravens took momentum into halftime. For about 13 seconds.
But even after Holliday, a college 100-meter sprint champion at LSU, sprinted past all Ravens with the second-half kickoff, the Broncos couldn't swat the Ravens away.
Late in the third quarter, the Broncos had third-and-1 from the Baltimore 45. But a holding penalty on right guard Chris Kuper -- hotly disputed by Broncos coach John Fox -- moved them back and on third-and-long Manning was stripped sacked. The Ravens recovered the fumble and were in business at the Broncos' 37.
A 32-run by Ray Rice gave the Ravens first-and goal, and Baltimore's tailback finished off the drive with a 1-yard lunge.
Fot all of Holliday's heroics, it was 28-28 entering the fourth quarter.