Column: Ravens win is one for the ages

201301121928701396246-p2.jpeg

Column: Ravens win is one for the ages

Just before the sixth quarter of one of the most fascinating and improbable NFL playoff games you'll ever see, Justin Tucker trotted out onto the field and did something you hardly ever see.

He practiced making a field goal. And for one of the few times on a frigid afternoon-turned-evening in Denver, something turned out exactly as planned.

The game that seemed like it was destined never to end finally did, much to the dismay of 76,732 shivering fans and a quarterback who had seemed destined to take the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl. It was Peyton Manning's interception that gave the Baltimore Ravens their golden opportunity in the 38-35 win, though Manning could hardly be blamed for the Broncos being in that position to begin with.

He was still playing deep into overtime for the same reason Ray Lewis will go on to play at least one more game before calling it a career. Lewis was on the sideline probably rehearsing his farewell speech when a shocking collapse by the Denver secondary allowed a game tying touchdown on a 70-yard pass to Jacoby Jones with just 31 seconds left.

Up until then, it was just about how John Elway imagined things going when the Broncos courted Manning during the offseason and let the orange-clad faithful in Denver know that Tebowtime was over.

A frigid weekend in January. A big-time quarterback under center. And a fourth quarter drive engineered by Manning that appeared to wrap up this playoff win with a giant bow.

Except the Broncos aren't one step closer to the Super Bowl. The Ravens are flying to either Houston or New England, and the way they felt after Saturday's game they might not even need a plane.

It was tough enough to win it. Trying to describe it all afterward might have been even tougher.

``Thanks for bearing witness to one of the greatest football games you're ever going to see,'' Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. ``That football game did the game of football proud.''

Indeed it did, warts and all. Yes, the brilliant plays were all there - how many times have you seen a player start both halves with long kick returns for touchdowns as Denver's Trindon Holliday did? - but the miscues were almost as memorable and arguably more significant.

That begins with Manning, who was supposed to be the coolest one on a very cool field but had three turnovers that led directly to 17 points. It continues with Ravens punt and kickoff return teams that gave up scores that might have sunk any team that didn't believe like it was supposed to win no matter what happened.

``We never wavered, we never wavered,'' Lewis said. ``This will probably go down as one of the greatest wins in Ravens history.''

But the play that will be debated and dissected in Denver for far longer than Tebowmania ever lasted was the biggest gaffe of all. It came after standout cornerback Champ Bailey had already been beaten for two long touchdown passes, and everyone in the stadium was asking the person in the seat next to them what happened to the vaunted Broncos pass defense.

Eight men were playing off the line, knowing the game was theirs unless something freakishly horrible happened. Eight men who all knew a desperation pass was coming but somehow were unable to defend against it.

Eight men who could do nothing but watch as Jacoby strutted into the end zone with the tying score.

``You got to start taking shots at some point and it happened to work out,'' Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. ``It was pretty incredible.''

There were snow flurries on the field and the wind chill had dipped below zero when Manning and Lewis met again at midfield, this time for the coin flip for overtime. The two were always intertwined in this game and both had their moments, with Lewis getting a team-high 15 tackles and Manning throwing for three scores, the last of which seemingly secured the win for Denver.

Manning had come back from a lost season and a potentially career-ending neck injury to win 11 straight games for his new team. Lewis was calling it a career, and using his pending retirement as one more way to motivate his team to keep playing.

They played nearly 77 minutes before it was finally settled by a rookie kicker who after the end of the first overtime period went out on the field to practice a kick. Tucker made 30 of 33 during the regular season, and this one was perfect, touching off a celebration on the sidelines.

Manning went over and gave Lewis a hug before heading into a somber, stunned locker room. He showered and dressed in suit and tie before coming out to talk about how hard it was for everyone on the team to have their season come to such a shocking end.

``You want it to work and keep going and win, but that's not always the way it works,'' Manning said.

Lewis was just as philosophical in victory, talking about higher powers and things that happen when men come together. He said he was particularly inspired by a visit he made to a Baltimore hospital Thursday night, where he saw sick kids who will never be able to experience the joys he has in playing the game of football.

``I challenged my team this week to not listen to anything outside our building, to buy into everything we are as a team,'' Lewis said. ``When you get everybody to buy in, it's just so special to see it.''

Even more special might be to see the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

And after a win for the ages, a lot more people are beginning to believe that's just where they will end up.

----

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

Three things to know about Ravens sixth-round pick Keenan Reynolds

keenanreynoldsrefframe_1.jpg

Three things to know about Ravens sixth-round pick Keenan Reynolds

We are profiling the Ravens’ draft picks as they prepare to start minicamp Friday. Here are three things to know about sixth-round pick, WR Keenan Reynolds of Navy:

1. The biggest push to draft Reynolds came from assistant general manager Eric DeCosta.

DeCosta, general manager Ozzie Newsome, and coach John Harbaugh were visibly moved talking about making the phone call to Reynolds. All of them admire the way Reynolds has handled himself at Navy, both on and off the field.

When Newsome made the call, he put Reynolds on speaker phone so that everyone could hear his reaction. “Everyone in the room could be a part of telling him that we picked him,” Newsome said. “It was a special moment.”

2. Reynolds is much more than just a symbolic pick.

The Ravens believe Reynolds can stick as a punt returner, and that he has the athleticism and work ethic to become a polished slot receiver. Reynolds has many qualities inherent to top punt returners – good judgment, vision, elusiveness, sure hands, and speed. The Ravens also like that Reynolds has been working with CSN’s Brian Mitchell, a former Pro Bowl punt returner with the Redskins.

“Fortunately, we have a great relationship with Brian Mitchell,” DeCosta said. “We did our homework on him. He’s a guy that was a player of interest to us throughout the process. We kept it very quiet and, and it worked out the right way.”

 3. The Ravens are willing to wait if military obligations prevent Reynolds from playing right away.

Naval Academy graduates are obligated to a five-year military term, but Reynolds has hope of being able to play this fall. The Patriots drafted Navy graduate Joe Cardona last year as a long snapper, and he was granted permission to play. Cardona spent one day a week working at a Rhode Island naval facility. Reynolds hoped a similar arrangement could be worked out for him.

“I’m hoping and praying, and I’m confident that this potentially could be the same type of situation with myself,” Reynolds said. “It’s a blessing that the Ravens felt I was worthy to take a chance on with the military obligation and my service commitment.”

Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

ravensdraftrefframe_1.jpg

Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

It was no surprise the Ravens did not pick up the fifth-year option on safety Matt Elam by Monday’s deadline. The bigger question is whether Elam even makes the team next season.

The 32nd pick in the 2013 draft, Elam has been one of the biggest first-round busts in team history. Some of the standout players who went after Elam in that draft include Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (44th), Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (48th), and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins (52nd).

Elam missed all of last season with a torn biceps, after underperforming in 2013 and 2014. Elam was a big hitter in college at Florida, but has struggled with missed tackles as a Raven, and has been even worse in pass coverage. With the Ravens acquiring safety Eric Weddle in free agency, and Lardarius Webb switching from cornerback to safety, Elam is expected to be a backup at best. He will compete with Terrence Brooks, Kendrick Lewis, and others for a backup role.

Elam is scheduled to make $1.327 million next season, before becoming a free agent in 2017.  However, Elam’s first priority is to secure his place with the Ravens in 2016.  

AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

ravensdraftrefframe_1.jpg

AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

The Ravens can expect to see Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison as an opponent again in 2016. Harrison confirmed on his Instagram account Monday that he would return for another season.

Harrison will turn 38 years old Wednesday (May 4), but he was still effective in 2015 with five sacks and 40 tackles playing in the Steelers’ linebacker rotation. With his announcement that he was returning, Harrison wrote “I’m feeling just like a fine wine. Getting better with age.”

Despite Harrison’s age, the Steelers believe they got younger and better on defense through the draft. Five of the Steelers’ seven picks were on defense – cornerback Artie Burns (first round), safety Sean Davis (second), defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (third round), outside linebacker Travis Feeney (sixth round), and inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich (seventh round).  

Clearly, there will be plenty of new names in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, with both teams looking to get younger and faster. However, Harrison plans to be part of the mix for at least another season. The Ravens host the Steelers in Week 9, and visit the Steelers on Christmas afternoon.

MORE RAVENS: BISCIOTTI GETS HIS WISH WITH BOLSTERED PASS RUSH