Denver: Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco completed a last-minute 70-yard touchdown pass that helped the Ravens stun the Denver Broncos, while the San Francisco 49ers dominated the Green Bay Packers defense in Saturday’s NFL divisional play-off games.
Flacco’s pass came with 31 seconds left to force overtime, and Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yard field goal to clinch a 38-35 win and dump Denver, the Super Bowl favourites, out of the play-offs.
San Francisco led Green Bay 24-21 at half-time but in the second half the Packers defense was all at sea against 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ran for a quarterback play-off record 181 yards, as the hosts won 45-31.
Baltimore will play either New England or Houston in the AFC title game, while San Francisco’s opponent in the NFC decider will be Atlanta or Seattle.
While Flacco’s pass will go into Ravens folklore, his opposing quarterback Peyton Manning will be left to rue the intercept he threw in overtime which led to the winning field goal.
“Our team is so confident and everything went against us,” said retiring Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, “but we found a way to come here together and we’re leaving together. It’s just awesome.”
The game, the longest since the Browns beat Cleveland 23-20 in 1987, was an all-time classic, as was Flacco’s touchdown pass.
On third-and-three from his 30-yard line with 41 seconds and no timeouts left, Flacco bought time in the pocket and saw Jacoby Jones sprinting down the right sideline into double coverage. Defensive back Tony Carter slowed up and let Jones streak by him. Safety Rahim Moore elected not to track Jones but rather to leap and try to knock down the ball. Flacco, who throws the high, deep ball as well as anyone, got it over Moore’s head and into Jones’ hands. The wide receiver caught it and pranced into the end zone, blowing kisses to the crowd.
The Broncos then chose to kneel to end regulation.
The teams punted three times to start overtime, setting up Denver on their seven-yard line. Manning was moving the Broncos along slowly and steadily. But on second-and-six from the 38, he rolled to his right, stopped and threw across his body toward Brandon Stokley. Corey Graham stepped in front of the receiver for the interception, bookending the pick he made in the first quarter, which he returned 39 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
Graham’s pick gave Baltimore the ball on the Denver 45-yard line. Following the break between overtimes, Ray Rice made three runs up the middle in second overtime, setting up Tucker’s pressure kick.
The temperature at kickoff was minus-11 degrees Celcius (13 Fahrenheit) and Manning fell to 0-4 in his career lifetime when the temperature is 4C (40F) or less. He finished 28 for 43 for 290 yards and accounted for all three Denver turnovers — two interceptions and a lost fumble that set up the touchdown which tied the game 28-28 late in the third quarter.
Those mistakes nullified a record-setting day for returner Trindon Holliday, who returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 104 yards for another score. Both were playoff records for longest returns, as was the 248 total return yards he had.
The result was devastating for the Broncos, who came in on an 11-game winning streak and were favourites to win the Super Bowl, in Manning’s hometown of New Orleans, no less.
In San Francisco, Kaepernick ran for two touchdowns and threw two scoring passes to Michael Crabtree in leading the 49ers over the Packers.
Kaepernick outplayed the reigning NFL MVP and former Super Bowl champion Aaron Rodgers in a sensational, record-setting playoff debut.
“It feels good,” Kaepernick said. “We’re one step closer to where we want to be. I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”
The second-year pro was making just his eighth NFL start. There’s no doubting coach Jim Harbaugh’s big mid-season quarterback switch now.
Rodgers never got in sync for the Packers, finishing 26 of 39 for 257 yards with two touchdowns.
Kaepernick ran for scores of 20 and 56 yards on the way to topping the rushing mark of 119 yards set by Michael Vick in 2005 against St. Louis. Crabtree caught TD passes of 12 and 20 yards in the second quarter and wound up with nine receptions and 119 yards for the Niners (12-4-1) in the NFC divisional matchup.
San Francisco had 579 total yards with 323 on the ground, scoring the third-most points in the franchise’s storied playoff history.
“Our offensive line did an amazing job today,” Kaepernick said. “They shut everybody down inside. Our receivers, our tight ends blocked great outside, and our running backs were running hard, so it made it easier on me.”
Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each added two-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.
This was another early exit for the Packers, who lost in the divisional play-offs to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants a year ago.
San Francisco advanced to back-to-back NFC title games for the first time since reaching three in a row following the 1992-94 seasons, with 1994 their last trip to the Super Bowl.
Kaepernick topped Vick’s quarterback rushing record with a 56-yard dash to the end zone in the third quarter, breaking the game open.
Kaepernick joined Jay Cutler in 2011 and Otto Graham in both 1954 and ‘55 as the only players with two rushing and two passing touchdowns in a play-off game.