Reading the eyes of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Ravens cornerback Corey Graham broke on the football and undercut wide receiver Brandon Stokley to intercept the four-time NFL Most Valuable Player in overtime.
The pivotal turnover set up rookie kicker Justin Tucker's game-winning 47-yard field goal as the Ravens advanced to the AFC title game following a 38-35 victory in which Graham haunted Manning.
Graham also intercepted Manning during the first half, returning an interception 39 yards for a touchdown off a pass intended for wide receiver Eric Decker and deflected by nickel back Chykie Brown.
"It was a tipped ball," Graham said. "You run to the ball and Chykie got his hand on the ball, and was able to tip it up and it came right to me. It was just one of those plays, being in the right spot.
"On the second one, I was in coverage and Stokley turned it up the field on me. I was recovering, trying to get back to him and I was able to undercut him and get underneath it. It was one of those plays, it was big."
Manning lost two fumbles and was sacked three times, completing 28 of 43 passes for three touchdowns and an 88.3 passer rating as he was outdueled by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
"No, I didn't feel like his arm had less juice or anything like that," Graham said when asked if Manning had less arm strength late in the game. "It's overtime, you are obviously going to be more aggressive, be more up there and try to make some plays. In overtime, the corners tightened it up and we were able to make some plays."
A former Pro Bowl special-teams ace with the Chicago Bears, Graham joined the Ravens in the spring after being convinced by coach John Harbaugh that he would be given the opportunity to play regularly on defense.
Graham became a starter after the season-ending injury to top cornerback Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith undergoing sports hernia surgery.
"I knew from the beginning that this was the best decision I ever made in my life," Graham said. "Well, one of the best. Probably marrying my wife was the best. Coach Harbaugh gives guys a chance to come out and play.
"He told me before I signed here that if I deserved to play that I would, and he's a man of his word. He gave me the opportunity to play and that's all I've asked for."
Line contains Denver pass rushers
The Ravens' offensive line prevented the Broncos' formidable pass rushing tandem of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil from dominating the game in their traditional fashion.
Miller and Dumervil split one sack, the only time that Flacco was dropped in the Ravens' backfield in what amounted to a coverage sack when no one got open. He was only hit three times for the game.
"They guy I'm most proud of is my left tackle, Bryant McKinnie," Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice said. "He went from not starting to playing a heck of a football game. Watch the tape, you saw some greatness out there."
A former Pro Bowl blocker, McKinnie lost his starting job prior to the regular season and took a $1 million paycut down to a $2.2 million base salary.
This marked his second game starting on the left side as Michael Oher has shifted to right tackle and rookie Kelechi Osemele started inside at left guard.
"I'm proud of Mike and myself," McKinnie said. "I think a lot of people had doubts and weren't sure. The Denver guys are really good. I'm proud of the whole offensive line. We all fought. Nobody blinked and everybody stuck together."
The Ravens also rushed for 155 yards on 39 carries as Rice gained a game-high 131 yards on 30 carries. The Ravens were shut down in the first game against Denver, rushing for just 56 yards on 19 carries.
"We played our hearts out," said Osemele, a second-round draft pick from Iowa State. "It was really a test of our will and who wanted it more. At the end of the day, the better team won, the better unit won. I'm really proud of the way the tackles played. They played a phenomenal game. Those guys stepped up."
The Ravens didn't report any injuries afterward, but rookie running back Bernard Pierce was in obvious pain.
Dealing with a nagging knee injury, Pierce was limping around the locker room and received treatment afterward.
Pierce rushed for just 14 yards on five carries, appearing to be hampered physically after rushing for 103 yards the previous week in an AFC wild-card playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Goodell addresses safety
Hours before the Ravens and Denver Broncos started crashing into each other, NFL commissioner Roger
Goodell reiterated that player safety is of paramount concern to the league.
Meeting with a small group of reporters following a fan forum, Goodell discussed the finding from the National Institute of Health that the late NFL linebacker Junior Seau displayed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head trauma.
Seau committed suicide in May in California, dying at age 43 of a self-inflicted shotgun blast after playing two decades in the NFL.
"It's why we're investing in the research is to find out more about it, CTE in particular, but also brain injury and brain disease," Goodell said. "And we need to have a lot more research because there's still unfortunately a lot of unknowns."
At a time when the NFL is facing multiple concussion-related lawsuits, Goodell indicated that the league has provided a $30 million research grant to NIH and has made commitments in the neighborhood of an additional $70 million on other research about players' health.
"We haven't waited for the research," Goodell said. "We've been making changes for the game, making rule changes, making equipment changes. Medicine has a ways to go. We need to fund more research. We have that in our collective bargaining agreement, to have $100 million worth of research.
"We've funded $30 million to the NIH last fall, so that research is under way and I think that will be beneficial in treatment and also in what we can do in continuing to make not just football safer but every other sport."
Alluding to Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard's illegal helmet-to-helmet hit a week ago on Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, Goodell emphasized that players need to stay under control and deliver a blow with their shoulder.
"We're trying to take the head out of the game," Goodell said. "It goes back to using the fundamentals. You need to tackle with your shoulder."
Ravens' All-Pro quartet
The Ravens had four players selected for the Associated Press' annual All-Pro squad.
Already named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad, fullback Vonta Leach, kick returner Jacoby Jones, offensive guard Marshal Yanda and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata made the AP's list.
Leach is a devastating lead blocker who punished defenders, including uprooting Steelers nose guard Casey Hampton, as the Ravens finished 11th in rushing with Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice gaining 1,143 yards and scoring nine touchdowns.
Leach and Jones were first-team selections, and Ngata and Yanda were second-team choices.
Jones returned two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns, leading the NFL with a 30.7 kickoff-return average.
Jones' 108-yard kickoff return against the Dallas Cowboys tied the NFL record for longest return.
Super Bowl deep freeze?
With the 2014 Super Bowl to be played in New York after next season, Goodell expressed a desire for more Super Bowls in cold-weather cities.
"My personal view is, the game of football is to be played in the elements," Goodell said.
"There are people who like to see the Super Bowl played in absolutely pristine conditions, where everything is the same and there's no weather elements at all. I just don't think that's football."
Goodell was asked whether Baltimore or Washington would ever be considered as candidates for Super Bowl sites.
"You have to look at the infrastructure, the stadium size, if the community has a significant amount of hotels," Goodell said. "Washington has expressed an interest in the past. We've looked at that, so we'll see what happens."
Ravens reserve rookie cornerback Asa Jackson was active in his first game after a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.
Jackson was punished by the NFL for unauthorized usage of Adderall. With Jackson active, the Ravens scratched wide receiver David Reed.
The Ravens also deactivated safety Omar Brown, cornerback Chris Johnson, outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton, offensive guard Ramon Harewood, wide receiver Deonte Thompson and defensive tackle Bryan Hall.
Stokley, who caught a touchdown pass for the Ravens in their Super Bowl XXXV win over the New York Giants, caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Manning in the first half. ... Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis wore his bulky black brace again to protect his surgically repaired right triceps. Lewis had wanted to shed the brace and didn't wear it during warm-up drills, but he put it back on before kickoff. ... The Broncos' inactives were cornerback Tracy Porter, ruled out Friday because of the lingering effects of a concussion, quarterback Caleb Hanie, wide receiver Andre Caldwell, fullback Chris Gronkowski, center-guard C.J. Davis, tight end Julius Thomas and defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. ... In a nod to the cold temperatures, Manning wore a glove on his throwing hand.
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