Peyton Manning is going to have nightmares about Corey Graham for a long time. It had been a long time since America got a glimpse of the Peyton Manning face. You know, the pained way that he shapes his entire face while frowning after critical mistakes, just like the one Charlie Brown used to make whenever Lucy yanked the football out from under him, knowing that he fell for the same trick again. Manning waited two long years to play in another playoff game. In between were a few procedures on his neck and a uniform change, and what Manning did this season in taking his new team, the Denver Broncos, to the playoffs was quite an accomplishment. That being said, if you would have told me six months ago that Corey Freaking Graham would have been the one to give Peyton haters the face they had long been waiting for, that he would pick Manning off twice in the playoffs, there is no way I would have believed you. Yes, even though his Ravens teammates were hyping him up all summer. Back in training camp, when Graham was picking off Ravens quarterbacks on a daily basis, I wrote a story about the Ravens secondary, which players like Lardarius Webb and Bernard Pollard boasted was the NFL's best. While interviewing four Ravens defensive backs about a talented group that included future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed and 2011 first-round draft pick Jimmy Smith, each made a point to mention Graham, the unknown cornerback and special teams ace who signed with the Ravens during the offseason. He walked away from the Chicago Bears in part because he wanted an opportunity to show that he could do more than cover kicks. And because of the injuries to Webb and Smith, the Ravens were forced to give him that opportunity. Since then, Graham has easily been the best of this bunch. Graham has started the past 10 games for the Ravens, and he picked off two passes during the regular season. He held his own in outside coverage, but he fares better in the slot, where he plays whenever opponents put more than two wide receivers on the field. That's where he played often Saturday, and both of his two interceptions of Manning came when he was covering the slot receiver. The first was after fellow cornerback Chykie Brown deflected a pass right to him, and Graham took it to the house to put the Ravens up, 14-7, in the first quarter. His second came late in the first overtime session, and it put the Ravens in position to ultimately win, 38-35, on a Justin Tucker field goal. As Manning rolled to his right, Graham blanketed slot receiver Brandon Stokely as Stokely ran an out route to his right. As the rush closed on Manning, Stokely broke off his route and cut back to the left up the field. Graham stayed in the passing lane, and he lunged to intercept a low throw by the quarterback. Cue the Manning face. Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, has endured plenty of tough playoff losses (though this was his first against the Ravens). That's what happens when you win double-digit games every season. But I suspect this one will linger for a long time, as I'm sure Manning really wanted to win this one for the Broncos, who took a leap of faith with him this past offseason. And it will be the two interceptions he tossed to Graham, particularly the last one, that will stalk his dreams until September.
Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.