It was a commanding performance for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, the kind of masterful game on a huge stage that can build a reputation.
Calmly orchestrating the Ravens' offense, Flacco outdueled Denver Broncos star quarterback Peyton Manning to engineer a 38-35 double-overtime victory Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Flacco completed 18 of 34 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns for a 116.2 quarterback rating, while Manning was intercepted twice and fumbled twice, losing one.
"I don't know if I'm amazed, but it was pretty incredible," Flacco said of toppling the Broncos. "We overcame some things. We fought to the very end."
Flacco launched accurate, crisp spirals to connect on scoring throws of 59, 32 and 70 yards. His towering bomb behind flailing Broncos free safety Rahim Moore to wide receiver Jacoby Jones to send the game into overtime was a heave from the Ravens' 25-yard line.
"Joe has a cannon," Jones said of Flacco, who's in a contract year with negotiations on a potential blockbuster deal tabled until the offseason. "That's why we call him, 'Smokin' Joe.'"
Allusions to boxing legend Joe Frazier aside, Flacco made a cement-like impression on his teammates in the Ravens' locker room, where he was saluted following a dramatic win that propels the Ravens to the AFC championship game for the second consecutive year.
"He grew up today," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "I told him, 'You're the General, lead us to victory, you lead us today.' I'm just here to facilitate things, just lead us. To look in his eyes, he had something different about him today and I just wanted to encourage him. I've always been a Joe Flacco fan and always will be, but to watch what he did today was probably one of the greatest things I'll sit back and remember."
Flacco's sharp performance and the presence of the Ravens' running game complementing him meant a balanced offense.
The Ravens rushed for 155 yards on 39 carries, 131 of them gained on 30 carries by Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice.
"Our offense goes through Joe," said Rice, who scored one touchdown. "So when Joe plays at a high level like that, it makes everything a lot smoother. The way Joe was throwing the ball set up the running game in the second half. We were able to churn up yards in the running game because of the way Joe was on point."
Flacco rebounded from a rough performance against the Broncos during a 34-17 regular-season loss where he threw an interception returned 98 yards for a touchdown and lost a fumble that led to a field goal.
"Joe made spectacular throws," rookie offensive guard Kelechi Osemele said. "We all know he has it in him."
Flacco hasn't turned the ball over since the first Broncos game.
Criticized at times for his stoic personality and for an up-and-down regular season, Flacco had a huge game at just the right time against the top-seeded Broncos.
“Perspectives on any player are going to evolve and that’s part of the process for any young quarterback," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You look at one of the greatest to ever play the game that was on the other side today [Manning] and if you look back, the perspective on him as evolved over the years. Joe’s going to be like that, like any other quarterback. I’m proud of him."
Flacco has made the playoffs five consecutive years, making him the first quarterback in NFL history to do so. And he has now reached the AFC title game for the third time.
Will more respect accompany the achievement for Flacco?
"Joe has been taking heat for years and years," Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach said. "He led our team. He showed everybody watching that game that he is an elite quarterback. He went out and proved it."
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