1. THIS TOOK A CHAIN REACTION.
For Baltimore to win, the Ravens had to establish the run game. They did; Ray Rice joined Jamaal Charles as the only running backs to gain 100 yards on the Broncos since Week 6. They had to win the turnover battle; they finished plus-3. They had to force the Broncos’ defense to back off with deep completions; they struck twice in the first half to Torrey Smith, leading to coverage tweaks.
But even those weren’t enough.
If Matt Prater’s right foot doesn’t clip the trampled-down grass a half-yard behind Britton Colquitt’s spot on a 52-yard field-goal attempt, the odds are good he would have drilled it and put the Broncos in front 24-14. Instead, he missed and Baltimore turned the good field position into Smith’s second touchdown, effectively a 10-point swing.
If Knowshon Moreno isn’t sidelined with a knee injury, the Broncos have one of their two premium running backs for the situation when they’re needed most: to grind down the clock.
And then there were the inconsistencies from Bill Vinovich’s officiating crew, which even dignified, restrained Tony Dungy criticized via Twitter. There was a pass-interference non-call on Chykie Brown that was missed allowed Corey Graham to intercept a deflected Manning pass and return it 39 yards for a touchdown. A call against Champ Bailey in overtime kept a Ravens drive alive, costing the Broncos field position for their ensuing possession. This doesn’t even encapsulate the holds of Elvis Dumervil that went undetected, and the holding call against Chris Kuper that should never have been whistled.
Trindon Holliday’s two touchdowns on returns were the examples of something that went unexpectedly right. Far more went awry — some of it within the Broncos’ control, some of it not.
2. BALTIMORE ATTACKED BAILEY — AND SUCCEEDED.
This game might have ended the notion of teams avoiding Champ Bailey’s side of the field at all costs — especially with a wide receiver with as much straight-ahead speed as Torrey Smith, who blew past Bailey four times — two of which ended in touchdowns that allowed the Ravens to forge a tie at halftime.
Cincinnati had success with A.J. Green going against Bailey in Week 9; although Bailey had an interception of an underthrown Andy Dalton pass, he also gave up a touchdown to Green.
The long-term impact could be profound. It’s not that Bailey isn’t among the league’s elite cornerbacks; he is, and three touchdowns surrendered over 17 games is an enviable pace. But if teams attack his side of the field, then Denver’s safeties can no longer attack the run as aggressively, which increases the chances of an open lane.
The Ravens offered a template for defusing the Broncos defense. Not every team can mimic it, but it gives foes something to study in the offseason — and will force the Broncos to confront an uncomfortable reality: that someday — not now, but in a few years — they’ll have to make their game plans without having such a reliable player effectively neutralizing one side of the field.
Bailey has good days in front of him, and it would be no surprise if he responds to the challenge with a bushel of interceptions in 2013.
3. TIGHTENING UP.
I’ve seen enough teams unconsciously tweak their tactics and tone down their aggression in the postseason to know that what happened in the final moments of regulation — when John Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy elected to take a knee and go to overtime with 31 seconds remaining, two timeouts and a tie game — is common.
“(What I was) thinking was, with 30 seconds it is hard to go the length of the field, and some bad stuff can happen — as you saw at the end of the game with thirty seconds (left),” Fox said..
“I don’t really have a whole lot of thought on that,” Manning added. “You really can’t point to that, I don’t think.”
Indeed, Manning could have thrown an interception, as he did on a short pass to Stokley in overtime. But hindsight being 20/20, the previous possession — when the Broncos got a first down and needed just one more to seal the game — was the true opportunity lost..
It’s not that running the football out of a two-tight end package against a stacked box was a bad idea in and of itself. Properly executed, it can — and has — worked. It’s salted away many games for Fox, and even if it fails, it guarantees at least one positive outcome for the drive: the draining of clock to where the Ravens had just 69 seconds to drive 77 yards without a timeout. The odds are clearly in your favor in this scenario, especially since the Ravens’ previous four drives to start in their own territory ended as follows: fumble, punt, punt, turnover on downs.
But running those plays with a third-string running back built for speed, and not power, like rookie Ronnie Hillman? That is the part of the decision that can be properly questioned, in light of the injuries to Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, which robbed the Broncos of their best power-running options. Further, the Ravens had successfully clogged holes, particularly up the middle, where Haloti Ngata and Ma’ake Kemoeatu did some of their best work of the season. The final run of that doomed series was an audible.
“I called that play, so, don’t put that on Mike [McCoy],’ Manning said. “We just didn’t do much with it.”
Sometimes the best option is the one that isn’t obvious, and if ever a clock-chewing situation called for a different approach, this was it. But the game never should have come down to these decisions. It should have been won long before.
A sturdy, steady tactical approach helped keep the Broncos sailing smoothly for most of the season, even through a choppy 2-3 start. They wouldn’t have finished 13-3 without the kind of consistency that manifests itself in grinding down the clock with a one-score lead, since the time-tested tactic has worked many times before and will work again. But without McGahee or Moreno at their disposal, the endgame called for a hard turn to starboard. Instead, the Broncos stayed the course and offered the Ravens one last chance to punch a fatal leak in the Broncos’ hull — which they delivered, thanks to Moore’s errant leap.
But as with the first observation, it involved a chain reaction. One player, play or coach didn’t lose this game. This was little breakdowns that added up to something monumental. And given the chances that were squandered, it never should have come down to a Manning audible on third down inside of the last two minutes.