The weird thing about legends is that, before they are made, stuff tends to go on beforehand that would’ve tipped you off if you’d been paying attention; stuff that would’ve let you know, “Hey, something aberrational and unbelievable will be happening soon, so here are some head-scratching omens to set the mood.” As I sit here, numb and breathless in jubilation I can’t even begin to describe, I reflect on something that happened to me before the Ravens and Broncos played one of the best playoff games in history on Saturday night: I went to the National Zoo that morning and saw a monkey catch, kill and eat a mouse—raw, and right in front of me. Specifically, I saw a golden lion tamarin pounce on a rodent that did not belong in the exhibit (there is an infestation), break its neck, and begin a meal of mouse-flesh by ripping off its ear. At the time I put my hand to my mouth and gasped—but if there were ever a mind-boggling, creepy and/or epic thing that was supposed to foreshadow something unfathomable, that was it.
And then there’s the easier analogy: Everybody thought the Ravens would be the mouse, and that Denver would be the monkey.
The insanity of living and dying and loving and hating in the name of sports is justified by the kind of game the Ravens and Broncos played. Never have I seen a contest that literally had everything a professional football game can offer, a game that overflowed with the kind of things we beg to see and dream about seeing—not only for the sake of seeing “our” teams win, but for the sake of being entertained, for caring to the point that we feel nervous and sick, for witnessing greatness. It was the playoffs with Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis on opposite sides of the ball for the last time, dueling it out through audibles like grandmasters of chess. Snow appeared, with flurries whipping across the field and faces getting redder, breath from underneath helmets getting whiter. It was a rematch of a regular season game that stretched into double-overtime, making it the longest football game since 1987. And there was, of course, a prohibitive favorite, because it was Manning versus Flacco; a well-rested team versus one that had played six days before; a team that knew about mountainous air versus one from Baltimore; and a spotty defense versus one ranked second in the league.
Few talking heads gave the Ravens a chance, as everyone drooled over the chance of another Manning-Brady AFC Championship Game. A lot of football “fans” said they looked forward to the Ray Lewis retirement story line finally going away, and were bitter enough to openly hope that he went out with a humiliating loss. An ESPN poll found that in 49 states, the majority of people believed that Denver would beat Baltimore, with only one state—admittedly a very biased one sandwiched between Delaware and Pennsylvania and the Virginias—having hope that David could be accurate with his slingshot.
I both understand and am confused by the fact that the Ravens beat the Broncos in this see-sawing thriller that’s destined for ESPN Classic immortality—a game that was so good with its constant, improbable lead changes that even Steeler fans had to give props to their hated rivals. In some ways I still can’t fathom the win for the same reason I didn’t expect it: On paper and maybe in real life, the Broncos are the better team. The Broncos have a better defense, a better offense, and CERTAINLY the better special teams. Whereas the Ravens have looked held together by glue and guts for the past month, limping into the postseason with losses in four of the last five games, the Broncos had seemed fortified, chugging along to an 11-game win streak. And, in the game itself, the Ravens made the unconscionable mistake of spotting Peyton Manning, someone who came in undefeated against the team in nine career starts anyway, two touchdowns through kick coverage errors.
But here is where the Baltimore win starts to make sense.
It wasn’t talked about, but Denver’s 13-3 record was padded by the fact it had the weakest strength of schedule of all 32 teams in the league (.470): Twice it feasted on cupcakes like Oakland, Kansas City and San Diego. Secondly, our 17-point loss to the Broncos in Baltimore about a month ago was a good game that had been hovering, at worst, around 10-3 before Flacco threw the pick-six that changed everything. (This is something Rice tried to mention early last week when he said the game was “closer than it seemed,” which prompted derisive laughter, both IRL and on the Internet, from people who are probably pretty quiet right now.) Last was the undeniable fact, which some noted but most still overlooked because IT’S THE GOD-AWFUL RAVENS, that Manning is superhuman in the regular season but becomes mysteriously mortal in the playoffs, something you hear about but don’t fully grasp until it’s him against your team and he looks like Manning Lite; like 70% of the insanely talented gunslinger you’ve come to love/hate/fear. On this note, Peyton entered the game on Saturday 0 for 3 in cold-weather playoff games. With windchill, this one hit -3°. (Makes you wonder why he and John Elway thought the gorgeous, Brazilian climate of Denver in January was going to agree with their Super Bowl hopes.)
The Ravens took their lumps from Peyton, a couple big ones too: With 7:26 left in the second quarter, Manning delivered what I thought could’ve been the dagger—a laser that somehow floated to Knowshon Moreno in the corner of the end zone, despite the fact Manning had had someone flying in his face AND clawing at his feet when he’d thrown it. But the Ravens got their knocks in, too, recognizing that even the greatest quarterback ever is still, at this point, a man close to 40 who has had four neck surgeries, and forcing that guy into three turnovers. The defense controlled top-flight receivers Decker and Thomas, content to give Peyton short stuff to his tight ends, and actually knocked Moreno out of the game; it held a team led by Peyton Manning to 21 offensive points, something a head coach will take every time. And that’s to say nothing of the offense, which from the start looked determined to affect the outcome. Torrey Smith is just two years removed from college and he DISMANTLED Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler. Jacoby Jones, whom I lambasted as a ball-dropper in a published letter to Deadspin last summer, caught the biggest catch of his life. Ray Rice had no fumbles and pounded Denver into submission. The offensive line, keeping the new look it rolled out last week (with the most positive/ironic development being that Michael “Blind Side” Oher is no longer guarding the blind side), kept Flacco clean, foiling Denver’s plan to rattle him into mistakes.
On Flacco: Dude had himself a game. He was the opposite of what he was the last time he played Denver, when he was so bad he temporarily inspired his own meme of ineptitude, called “Flaccoing.” In this game he was poised and made smart football decisions. Instead of pressing, he threw the ball away when he didn’t like what he saw. Instead of standing like a statue in a collapsing pocket, he felt pressure and stepped away from it. In the thin air that was foreign to the Ravens, he was intelligent about pace and play clock, keeping things fast and steady enough for there to be offensive rhythm, but not so fast that, if the offense were to fail, the defense would be coming back gassed. In yet another big game he was full of clutch conversions, one a game-saving third-and-13 across the middle and between two defenders; the other that sublime 70-yard bomb that forced overtime, Insta-Classicked the game and stunned 49 states. (OK, Maryland was pretty stunned too.) Before the game Ray Lewis told Flacco to be “the general” of the team. Joe came through, throwing for playoff career highs in yardage (331) and touchdowns (3) en route to his third AFC Championship Game in five years.
It’s hard to overstate how much this win means to Baltimore, which seems to almost always be counted out by everyone but itself. After the game I went out and saw people in black and purple jerseys all over DC, and every time we Ravens fans made eye contact we psychically connected, shouting, “We did it! WE ACTUALLY DID IT!!!” My body was shaking for the last 20 minutes of the game and for half an hour afterward. I called my father and we reveled in each other’s joy like children. I have heard and read accounts of grown men who shed tears. I cried too, because I have never been prouder to root for the Ravens than I was that night; and I would be saying this even if the Ravens had lost, because the team showed heart like nothing I’ve ever seen. A tip of the cap to rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who nailed his first postseason game-winning field goal—a 47-yarder—like it was a chip shot. But, you know, a tip to Manning, as well, who despite having to swallow one of the bitterest pills of his career was nothing but grace and class at the end, seeking out Ray Lewis to wish him well. (Cool locker room photo here.)
And now that the Ravens are to set to return to the place where, one year ago, the Super Bowl fell out of someone’s hands, let’s recall the words of Jack Harbaugh, father of John and Jim, who was quoted by the Ravens’ head coach last week: “Attack with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” I refuse to expect the worst against the Patriots.