Sports

Ravens extend season with thrilling playoff win in Denver

FootballBaltimore RavensSportsRay LewisDenver BroncosNew England PatriotsAFC Championship Game

In a playoff upset for the ages, the Ravens thrilled fans who had embraced their underdog status by defeating the Denver Broncos in double overtime Saturday on a lengthy field goal by their rookie kicker.

The Ravens will move on to either Houston or Foxboro, Mass., for the AFC Championship Game next Sunday evening. And linebacker Ray Lewis, who plans to retire at the end of the season, will continue his 17-year career for at least another week.

Ravens cornerback Corey Graham intercepted Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning late in the first overtime to set up the game-winning 47-yard field goal by Justin Tucker. The final score: 38-35.

Lewis sank to his knees in prayerful thanks after Tucker's kick sailed through the uprights at Denver's Sports Authority Field. In the locker room afterward, coach John Harbaugh quoted a text from Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti calling the game the best playoff effort he'd seen since 2000.

"That football game did the game of football proud," Harbaugh said.

It was one of the wildest games in Ravens history. From the opening minutes, they traded startling plays with the Broncos, the top seed in the AFC playoffs.

Denver returned two kicks for touchdowns. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco fired back with one of the best playoff performances of his career, connecting with Torrey Smith for two sensational touchdowns in the first half and winging a 70-yard pass to Jacoby Jones to tie the game with less than a minute left in regulation.

"I've never seen anything like that," Smith said. "It's definitely a game I'll never forget regardless of what happens after this game. That's something you remember for a long time."

In Timonium, a hush settled over fans at Padonia Station as they awaited Tucker's kick. "All that could go through my head was last year's game and the bad kick that took us out," said Melissa Williams of Pikesville, referring to the cruel ending of the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots.

One man screamed "Sweet baby Jesus!" when he saw that the kick was true. In another corner of the bar, fans belted out the team's unofficial anthem, "Seven Nation Army."

"It goes along with the resiliency of the city," said Baltimore native Jerry Sweeten. "Blue collar, hard nosed. This is how we do it. Nothing comes easy."

With the upset victory, the Ravens advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the second straight season. They will face the winner of Sunday's Divisional playoff game between the Houston Texans and the Patriots.

Either opponent would present a juicy revenge scenario for the Ravens.

The Texans battered them in Houston in the seventh week of the season. The 43-13 defeat was the most lopsided in Harbaugh's five years as Ravens coach. But the Texans have not been the same team late in the season. They lost three of their last four regular-season games to squander a first-round playoff bye and then struggled to put away the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild-Card round.

The Ravens beat the Patriots at home in the season's third week. But that won't be the game everyone recalls if the Ravens travel to Foxboro, Mass. After all, the next contest would be a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game, won by the Patriots after Ravens receiver Lee Evans dropped a potential touchdown pass in the end zone and kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would have tied it. The defeat was among the most bitter in franchise history.

The Patriots would again be a formidable foe, coming off a 12-4 regular season with quarterback Tom Brady playing some of the best football of his decorated career.

Regardless, the Lewis era continued with a thrilling piece of football theater in Denver.

The Ravens and Broncos played in bone-chilling cold, with a game-time temperature of 13 degrees, the chilliest in Denver's playoff history. The televised scene felt incongruous with the one in Baltimore, where fans, some in shorts and shirt sleeves, gathered on an unseasonably warm day.

Zach Lander-Portnoy watched from the patio at Mother's Federal Hill Grille as Denver's Trindon Holliday returned a Sam Koch punt 90 yards for a touchdown less than three minutes into the game.

When the Ravens mishandled the ensuing kickoff, Lander-Portnoy and his friends decided they better switch venues to shake up the afternoon's mojo.

Seconds after they ducked into Cross Street Market, Flacco lofted a pretty 59-yard scoring pass to Smith. Tie game.

"I'm never going to Mother's again!" Lander-Portnoy shouted in ecstasy. The Ravens quickly added another touchdown when Graham returned a tipped Manning pass 39 yards to cap an incredible opening five minutes.

Asked if the eventual fate of the game would ride on his choice of bars, Lander-Portnoy, a Federal Hill resident, just laughed. "I feel there is a superstitious atmosphere that's part of this crew," he said, gesturing to his friends. "It's only crazy if it doesn't work."

Almost every bar in Federal Hill was jammed body-to-body with patrons attired in Ravens jerseys. Lewis' No. 52 was the most popular, with fans hoping against hope to cheer the great linebacker to one more victory.

They knew it was an uphill battle. The Broncos spanked the Ravens 34-17 in Baltimore just a month ago, and with 11 straight victories, they hadn't lost to another team since early October. To make matters worse, the Broncos, aided by Denver's mile-high altitude, carry one of the great home field auras in the sport. And Manning had only lost twice in 11 career match-ups with the Ravens.

"We definitely have to overcome the odds," said Dan Schafer, who traveled from York, Pa., with his wife Julie to watch the game at Mother's. "But that just means that if we do this, the town's going to be crazy."

The Schafers wore matching Lewis jerseys, his purple and hers black atop purple jeans.

"It's heartbreaking," said Dan Schafer of Lewis' impending retirement. "He's been the soul of this city."

"His leadership has been phenomenal," added Julie Schafer.

Like most Ravens fans, the Schafers don't care that Lewis is a divisive figure nationally, stemming from the murder charges he faced in connection to a double stabbing in Atlanta in 2000. The charges were dropped when Lewis pleaded to a misdemeanor obstruction charge and agreed to testify against his co-defendants. But in the wake of his retirement announcement, many columnists wrote about the difficulty of reconciling Lewis' brilliance as a player with the Atlanta incident.

Dan Schafer was having none of it Saturday. "If you love a place and you love everything about it, then you're going to back someone like Ray 100 percent," he said. "It's like a family. That's what I love about Baltimore."

As Schafer talked, a helicopter with Lewis' No. 52 painted on its belly, circled above the patio at Mother's. Fans lifted their beers to the sky in salute.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporters Steve Kilar and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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