ReFo: Ravens @ Broncos, AFC Division Round
Legends crossed paths one final time in a memorable playoff in frigid temps. Ben Stockwell takes you through three points for each team in detail here.
ReFo: Ravens @ Broncos, AFC Division Round
In a game for the ages, one costly mistake by Peyton Manning cost the Denver Broncos a shot at a first conference title berth since their 2005 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers. As with that season, they lost as the No. 1 seed to an AFC North opponent and this year deprived many NFL fans of their dream of yet another Brady-Manning playoff showdown.
This was a game of big plays and momentum shifts with a combined three return touchdowns and three lead changes in the first half alone. In an ice cold environment it was fitting that a rookie kicker proved to have ice water running through his veins as Justin Tucker nailed a 47 yarder early in the second overtime period to clinch victory for the Ravens. On a day that one rookie kicker, Blair Walsh, was named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press it seemed fitting that Tucker had the signature moment to cap off a truly memorable playoff game. Simply put, Divisional Saturday delivered an all-time great game.
Broncos fans won’t look back too fondly on this game, despite a record-setting day by their return specialist, but each side had their part to play. Here is a look at some of the key performers that saw a heated battle in frigid conditions in the Mile High City.
Baltimore – Three Performances of Note
The Offense Shoulders the Load
For years the story of the Baltimore Ravens’ playoff success has been a defense that dominated the opposition and an offense that did just enough to win. This was a day where the Ravens allowed a franchise record 35 points in a playoff game, yet they still came up with the victory. Prior to this defeat the Ravens had conceded 30 points in a playoff game only once before, a 31-24 defeat in Pittsburgh two years ago. Thanks to some massive plays from the Ravens’ passing game against one of the best defensive backfields in the entire league, they came out on top. The offense got their fair share of help from some questionable plays by the Broncos’ defensive backs, but the Ravens still had to make their plays deep here. Joe Flacco (+3.9 passing) was an unerring four of six for 185 yards and three scores when he looked deep to his receivers. On the receiving end, it was Jacoby Jones who made the most important play of the game, getting behind some desperate coverage by Rahim Moore. Meanwhile, Torrey Smith (+1.2 receiving) was the man to make the big plays early, which left Champ Bailey (-3.7 coverage) looking nothing like the top-tier corner he had proven to be for the entire regular season. You always expected the Ravens to come in with heart and passion to really challenge the Broncos. Yet, to come out with a victory having taken big play after big play from one of Denver’s strong points speaks volumes to the playoff poise of this Baltimore team.
Match-Winner Corey Graham?
When the Ravens signed Corey Graham back in March it was perceived as a shrewd acquisition that would give them more depth at corner, but mostly it would provide another special teams ace for a squad led by a former special teams coach. Part of Graham’s motivation for leaving must have been to get more of a shot at defensive playing time, but few could have imagined him playing such a pivotal role on defense in a huge playoff victory. For the second straight week Graham played all of the Ravens’ defensive snaps, and this week tied his season high with three defensive stops. Targeted eight times, Graham yielded six catches, including Brandon Stokley’s spectacular touchdown grab that allowed the Broncos back in late in the first quarter. However, it was the plays that Graham took back in the other direction that were crucial. It was Graham who capitalized on a deflected pass to give the Ravens that 7-point lead which Stokley wiped out. Graham made an even bigger impact when he outfoxed both Stokley and Peyton Manning on that scramble drill late in the first overtime period. Winning in the playoffs is all about getting contributions from unlikely sources. Ever since taking a starting role for the Ravens back in Week 10 Graham has, more often than not, had a positive effect on the Ravens’ secondary. For the playoffs Graham has a coverage grade of +3.9 and he needs only one more display like this one to ensure he gets the first Super Bowl trip of his six-year career.
Making the Broncos Work On the Ground
The Ravens’ run defense is no longer the invincible force it was for so long. Still, they proved last night that when it counts they can come up with the stops. There were plenty of occasions where the Ravens didn’t always maintain containment. That allowed the dangerous Ronnie Hillman out of the back door on a play, but they didn’t allow that to develop into anything, yielding no rush longer than 11 yards. Then, when it came down to the crunch late in the fourth quarter, the Broncos played right into the Ravens hands as they tried to run out the clock and stamp their ticket to the AFC Championship Game. The Broncos came out with a heavy set, including Virgil Green and sixth lineman Chris Clark. That essentially told Baltimore that they were going to run the ball. After picking up one first down, the Broncos then stalled, collecting only 3 yards on three carries. The Ravens’ run defense, led by Haloti Ngata (+2.0 run defense), and Ray Lewis (+3.7 run defense), along with unsung heroes Ma’ake Kemoeatu (+3.2 run defense) and Courtney Upshaw (+1.8 run defense), simply stopped the Broncos in their tracks as they tried to run out the clock. Taking the ball out of the hands of your $96 million QB may be questionable enough, but to load up your offense and draw the Ravens’ run defense in was simply suicide on Denver’s part. The Ravens made life difficult for the Broncos on short yardage all game long, and in the end the Broncos just couldn’t get the final conversion they needed.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
It’s not often that a PFF Re-Focused opens a team’s performances of note with a special teamer. Then again, it’s not often someone sets two NFL postseason records in one game. Trindon Holliday (+2.3 returns) did just that with his 90-yard punt return and 104-yard kick return, which ensured the Broncos a fast start in each half. The returns may have been as much about poor lane discipline from the Ravens as Holliday’s mercurial escapability, especially on the kick return. However, this was still about Holliday making the most of limited opportunities. With the combined factors of Denver’s thin air and the kicking duo of Justin Tucker and Sam Koch, Holliday’s opportunities were likely to be limited in this game and he still found pay dirt on two of his six returns. The Ravens did a good job of scything him down for a 7-yard loss on a punt return late in the game, but those touchdown returns sparked this clash in each half and set the table for the classic battle we all witnessed.
Not Quite Miller Time
It feels strange to be saying that a pass rusher who earned seven pressures (1 Sk, 1 Ht, 5 Hu) had a limited impact in a game. However, the Ravens managed to reduce Von Miller’s (+6.5) impact. Much like the New England Patriots did with J.J. Watt back in Week 14, the Ravens realized they couldn’t stop Miller from playing well and completely shutting him down. The Ravens’ personnel usage kept Miller out of the Broncos’ pass rush more than we usually see. In this game, Miller rushed on ‘only’ 67.5% of his pass snaps on the field and he has rushed the passer on a lower percentage of his pass snaps only twice this season. Miller was still a force in the run game, collecting six run stops, but Baltimore ensured that he couldn’t make a game-defining play at any point. The brutal truth is that without Miller the Broncos’ pass rush only registered nine hurries for the rest of the game, and Flacco was pressured on only 10 of his 36 drop-backs. The Broncos’ pass rush has been one dimensional for much of the season, and it caught up to them when Flacco was able to hit the big plays (two of his three scores) when pressure didn’t get to him.
The cruel nature of playoff football tends to show ill-regard when it comes to allowing players and units to continue fine regular seasons. You need only look at the long list of great ‘regular-season’ quarterbacks to know that. The victim in this game was the Denver Broncos’ secondary, a unit which had been the Denver defense’s great strength, outside of the one-man gang up front (Von Miller). On a unit that had five players with significant playing time grade positively for the regular season, only one, Chris Harris Jr, stood out here. Champ Bailey was beaten deep consistently by Torrey Smith and was only spared giving up more than the 98 yards and two scores by a couple of wayward throws. Then, to cap it all off, Rahim Moore, who had been so impressive and sure footed since taking over a starting role this season had that one single lapse that every defensive back prays they never fall victim to. In a situation where the one thing you can never do is let the play behind you, Moore let the play in behind him and the rest, as they say, is history.
– The magic number for the Ravens’ defense seems to be 94. Including pre-snap penalties, the Ravens defense has been on the field for 94 snaps in each of their two playoff victories. Will those 188 snaps catch up with them next week as they look to punch their ticket to New Orleans?
– In his first start since Week 13, Chris Kuper had an incredibly disappointing grade of -7.4 as he leaked pressure, was beaten consistently in the running game and surrendered three holding penalties. Manuel Ramirez ended the season strongly, earning a +9.2 grade over the final three weeks. In hindsight, Ramirez may have been a better choice to start at right guard here.
– On throws outside the right numbers in this game Joe Flacco went six of seven for 156 yards and two scores. On throws outside the left numbers, Flacco was two of six for 15 yards. Suffice to say next week’s opposition should be zeroing in on Flacco’s open side to ensure he doesn’t get too many favorable looks there.
PFF Game Ball
He should be well served to share this game ball with his receivers who played an instrumental part in his game, but Joe Flacco came up with the big plays in the big moments here. This marks Flacco’s third AFC Championship game appearance in his five seasons in the NFL, and there can be no doubt as to the part he played in reaching this one.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.