When the best game that almost every Ravens' player had ever been a part of was finally over, Joe Flacco threw his hands in the air, Justin Tucker emphatically pumped his fist and Ray Lewis dropped to his knees, reduced to tears.
Tucker's 47-yard field goal 1 minute and 42 seconds into the second overtime ended a thrilling and exhausting divisional round playoff game and sent the Ravens into the AFC championship game for the second straight year. The 38-35 victory over the Denver Broncos earns the Ravens a date with the winner of Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and Houston Texans. The AFC championship game will kickoff next Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the home of Sunday's winner.
"When all the emotions calm down, it will probably be one of the greatest victories in Ravens history," said Lewis whose retirement tour moves on at least one more week.
It also may be one of their most improbable victories. The Ravens allowed two return touchdowns to Trindon Holliday who became the first player in NFL history to accomplish that feat in the postseason, and they trailed by seven with the ball at their own 30 with under a minute to go in regulation.
Quarterback Joe Flacco, who played one of his best games as a pro, spotted Jacoby Jones down the right sideline behind the Broncos' defense and unleashed a ball that seemingly hung in the air forever. Having beaten Tony Carter and Rahim Moore, Jones caught it and sprinted into the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown with just 31 seconds to play.
"I've never seen anything like that," said Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith who had two touchdown catches outplaying Broncos star cornerback Champ Bailey. "You play some games on Madden and you can't even do that."
The two teams traded punts to open overtime but on the Broncos' second possession in the extra session, Peyton Manning threw across his body and was intercepted by cornerback Corey Graham, giving the Ravens the ball at the Denver 45. An 11-yard run by Ray Rice then put Tucker in possession to convert the game winner.
"I always feel good about going out onto the field," said Tucker a rookie free agent who beat out Billy Cundiff in training camp to win the kicking job. "Not a lot of people get to do this. This is a heck of a lot of fun."
The victory ended the top-seeded Broncos' 11-game winning streak and gives the Ravens their first back-to-back AFC championship game appearance in team history. They beat a Manning-quarterbacked team for the third time in 12 tries and for the first time since the 2001 season.
It also provided an emphatic rebuttal to the Ravens' 34-17 loss to the Broncos four weeks ago, and to the questions all season that they were incapable of beating a good team on the road.
They certainly did that Saturday, overcoming four different Broncos' leads, Holliday's heroics, three touchdown passes by Manning, and temperatures that were below 10 degrees by game's end. It was the second coldest game in Broncos' history.
"I don't know if I'm amazed but it was pretty incredible," Flacco said. "We overcame some things today and we fought to the very end. Just like Tucker said and Ray said in the locker room, when some of those things did happen, none of us blinked. We just sat there on the sidelines and said, 'All right, our turn.' When some of those things did happen, no one worried. We just said, 'All right, our turn.' Slowly but surely, we were able to score points when we needed to and our defense was able to stop them."
Protected well by an offensive line that played one of its best game of the season -- tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher combined to allow one total sack -- Flacco completed 18-of-34 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns.
"Maybe people will stop underestimating Joe finally," McKinnie said. "This could be the turning point in his career. People need to stop underestimating Joe and give him a little more respect."
Flacco hit Smith for touchdowns of 59 and 32 yards, the latter one tying the game at 21 heading into the halftime. The two teams combined for 28 points in the game's first 11 minutes, a torrid pace that started with Holliday's 90-yard punt return touchdown and included Graham's 39-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Holliday started the second half with a 104-yard kickoff return that left the Ravens chasing a 28-21 deficit.
But Flacco, who shouldered a lot of blame for the Ravens' regular-season loss to the Broncos after his interception was returned 98 yards for a touchdown, was hardly the only Raven to gain some retribution. After fumbling twice in the Ravens' playoff-opening win over the Indianapolis Colts, Rice rushed 30 times for 131 yards and one touchdown. His 1-yard touchdown run with 20 seconds left in the third quarter tied the game at 28.
Manning's third touchdown of the day -- a 17-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas -- with just over 7minutes to play capped a 10-play, 88-yard drive that broke a 28-all deadlock. Thomas broke tackles from Lewis and safety Ed Reed on the play.
Flacco drove them down to the Broncos' 31. However, back-to-back drops -- the first by Jacoby Jones on third down and the second by Dennis Pitta on fourth down -- turned the ball over on downs. The Ravens did force the Broncos to punt, but they still had their ball on their own 23 with no timeouts and just over a minute to play.
"I told myself that Joe might throw me the ball so I better haul but off the line," Jones said.
After it was over, Rice declared the Ravens "the team of destiny."
"Just think about it," he said. "You give up two special teams touchdowns and the way Peyton played, odds says we're going to lose, but I think we're the only group of people that believed that we could get it done, and we did it."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has now been to the AFC championship game in three of his five seasons and while he abhors comparisons, it's hard to imagine a more rewarding trip than this.
"That was one of the best football games you're ever going to see," Harbaugh said. "That football game did the game of football proud. I'm just proud and grateful to have an opportunity to be part of this game. Our guys did not crack."
As a result, the Ravens boarded a plane on Saturday evening for a long trip home, knowing that they still have more football left to play.
"It was amazing. All the crazy stuff that went on -- a punt return, a kick return -- nobody flinched, man," safety Bernard Pollard said. "Everybody stayed the path and that was good for us. We're excited not to be packing our locker room up and going home."
twitter.com/jeffzrebiecsunCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun