— Ultimately, it was a special teams play that lifted the Ravens into the AFC championship game.
For much of Saturday's 38-35 double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos, however, it appeared that special teams would be the Ravens' downfall.
The Broncos' 5-foot-5 Trindon Holliday became the first player in NFL history to return a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same postseason game. He also set NFL records for the longest kickoff return (104) and punt return (90) in postseason history.
It was quite a day for a Ravens team that had arguably the most improved coverage units in the league this season. But in the end, it was the Ravens' kicker who helped seal the win.
"It's something we didn't do all year and to do it in playoffs when you need it the most and you need your team to be consistent and show up, and special teams didn't show up, luckily (kicker Justin) Tucker did show up," Ravens veteran Brendon Ayanbadejo said.
Rookie kicker Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yard field goal in the second quarter of overtime to seal the 38-35 win over the Broncos in the AFC divisional playoff game.
But before Tucker had an opportunity for the field goal, the Ravens special teams unit struggled.
Holliday opened the scoring when the Ravens' first possession ended in a punt and Sam Koch out-kicked his coverage. Ayanbadejo missed a tackle and Holliday raced to the end zone for a 90-yard touchdown. That broke the previous record of an 88-yard return by the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis in a 2001 playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Ravens had not allowed a touchdown return all season and, under special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, had made a drastic improvement this season. The Ravens were seventh in the NFL in punt coverage, up from 24th in 2011, and ranked 13th in kickoff coverage, up from 31st.
Holliday wasn't done, though. The Ravens' Chykie Brown missed a tackle when Holliday returned the opening kickoff of the third quarter 104 yards to put the Broncos ahead 28-21. The previous record was a 102-yard return by Atlanta's Eric Weems against Green Bay in 2010.
"We knew he was an electric returner," Ayanbadejo said. "I haven't seen it on film, so I don't know what happened. I'll have to see it on film, but definitely to play that bad on special teams and come out with a victory, someone is definitely looking out for us. We have to make a lot of corrections next week."
The Ravens' return game, meanwhile, was almost a non-factor. They had 22 yards on three punt returns and just 64 yards on four kickoff returns.
It was the kick coverage that really hurt the Ravens, though. Ayanbadejo was surprised to see the Ravens struggle so much in that regard, but believes they will fix the issues.
"Yeah, it's correctable," he said. "We just gotta keep doing what we always do. We're definitely down some guys, some guys were hurt, but there's still no excuses. It's championship football and all week we talked about playing championship football. Just doing everything the right way was our emphasis all week, and to go out there and to not perform like we did, we're lucky we have such a good offense and defense that we're able to come out of this."
It was a celebratory locker room, but the Ravens know that they weren't perfect against the Broncos.
No, the Ravens weren't perfect, but they were pleased to get out of Denver with a victory and start looking ahead to the AFC championship game.
"We've got some work to do, but thank God we have another chance, another opportunity to do it," Ayanbadejo said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun