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Longshot Ravens knock off top seed Broncos in improbable fashion

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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DENVER -- Stop looking for this year's Super Bowl dark horse. We just found it.

I'm talking about the Baltimore Ravens, a long shot that somehow beat the odds, Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Denver Broncos all at the same time with an improbable 38-35 victory in double overtime that ranks as one of the most memorable in modern playoff history.

It's not only that the Ravens won a game they weren't supposed to. It's how they won.

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There was a 70-yard touchdown pass with almost no time left in regulation -- a play that never, ever, ever should have happened. There was a Peyton Manning interception in overtime on a throw that never, ever, ever should have happened. And there was a pulsating, come-from-behind, you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it defeat of an opponent that hadn't lost in 11 straight games.

Yet deserved to lose.

That's why you have to wonder what's next for Baltimore. With the victory, the Ravens graduate to the AFC title game for the second straight year and the third time in coach John Harbaugh's five seasons. The expectation is that they'll face New England again, and how appropriate. The Ravens lost last year's conference championship contest to the Patriots when Lee Evans dropped a winning touchdown pass before Billy Cundiff blew a tying field goal.

So maybe there's a score to settle with ... well, with someone, including themselves. The Ravens believed they were the AFC's best in 2011, and they believe it again. Only now they have an unexpected opportunity to correct last year's mistake.

"We fought hard to get to this point," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We are definitely proud of being here, and we feel like it is going to take a lot for someone to come and kick us off that field come the AFC championship game. We are going to give it our all. We know what it felt like last year. We walked off that field without that win."

That should've happened again Saturday, only it didn't ... and it didn't because of Denver safety Rahim Moore. Or maybe it was Manning. Take your pick. All I know is that Moore blew the play that allowed Baltimore back in this game, and Manning threw the interception that led to the winning field goal.

"A very disappointing finish" is how Manning described it. Horrendous is more like it. Because Denver blew this one -- flat-out blew it -- and you can start with Moore's blunder. OK, give Baltimore's Jacoby Jones and Flacco credit for making the improbable happen, with the two hooking up for a tying 70-yard score with 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Ravens out of timeouts.

But tell me: How does that happen? I mean, all Denver had to do was not let anyone get behind its secondary ... which, of course, is just what happened, and blame Moore. He's the deep safety who blew the angle on Jones and blew the coverage.

"It was my fault," he later said. "If they wouldn't have scored on us on the last play [of the fourth quarter] we'd be in here rejoicing. So if people don't like me after that, I'm sorry. That is my fault, and I am going to take full responsibility for it."

Well, he should. He committed a fatal mistake, and the Broncos are out of the playoffs because of it.

"He just misjudged the ball," Baltimore safety Ed Reed said. "Like I told him after the game: 'Not one play loses the game.' It might've tied it, and thank God for that. [I'm] just grateful, man."

His teammates are, too, because they just caught a huge break. But that's what I'm talking about with this team. They should've lost -- but they didn't. They should've wilted after Trindon Holliday hit them with kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns -- but they didn't. They should've collapsed after Flacco's fourth-down pass to tight end Dennis Pitta fell incomplete with just over three minutes left -- but they didn’t. And they should've fallen victim to another Manning comeback victory -- but they didn't.

Instead, they held fast, intercepted Manning in overtime and ended a nine-game Manning winning streak against them that dated back to 2002.

"There is something here that's bigger than we are," said Harbaugh, "and I can't really describe it for you right now because we haven't done it. But there's a certain faith and trust that we have right now. I've never been on a team that has it like this. It's hard to describe, and some people will mock that. But it's real."

You gotta believe.

After the Ravens lost their third straight this season, a Dec. 16 blowout by Denver, I questioned if they'd win again. Then they walloped the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champions. Still, they limped into the playoffs losing four of their last five, yet somehow, some way, are one victory from the Super Bowl.

"The story is still being written," Reed said. "We're just one of those teams that wants to keep going right now. We knew we were a special team, regardless of what happened. We've been through so many ups and downs, adversity, people losing family members -- it's been tough. But since coach Harbaugh has been here we've been through a lot of things, and it's things that are so much bigger than this game."

That's another way of saying these Ravens believe in themselves, and maybe it's time we join them. I just watched them win a game I never imagined they would. But they did and in the most unlikely way.

"Everything's possible," Jones said. "The only thing that's not possible is you can't touch your left hand with your left elbow."

OK, I'll buy that. I'll buy into this team, too. I don't care whether it faces New England or Houston -- I'm sold. And Saturday's victory convinced me that maybe, just maybe, we're looking at the 2010 Green Bay Packers or 2011 New York Giants all over again.

"There was only one way to cap last week," said Lewis, referring to an emotional defeat of Indianapolis, "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?'

"Man says it's not possible, and God says, 'I do the impossible.' For us to come in here and win as 9- to 10-point underdogs, that's the beautiful part about sports. If I'll miss anything about my career it will be to listen to what people say you can't do ... then to go and to it. This is what life is all about."

So we were just reminded.

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