DENVER — From the blank stares and muted responses that emanated out of the visiting locker room late Sunday at Sports Authority Field, it was clear that there wasn't a single Raven who believed they could keep quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos' offense out of the end zone and still lose the game.
But that's exactly what happened. What was at times a dominant defensive effort by the Ravens came in a losing effort because of two interceptions thrown by Joe Flacco and the offense's inability to get into the end zone. Making matters worse, Flacco provided the Broncos with the winning points when his third-quarter interception was returned for a go-ahead 51-yard touchdown by cornerback Aqib Talib.
The Broncos' 19-13 victory in front of an announced 76,798 was the Ravens' third consecutive season-opening loss and a significant missed opportunity. Adding injury to insult, the Ravens lost rush linebacker Terrell Suggs late in the game to a season-ending left Achilles tendon tear.
The Ravens had a 13-9 lead late in the third quarter and Manning and the Broncos' offense were playing so poorly that they were being booed loudly by the capacity crowd. But Flacco's ill-timed interception to Talib gave the Broncos the lead. And then Flacco was intercepted in the end zone by former teammate Darian Stewart with about 30 seconds to play.
"It was an ugly one, and it wasn't too fun to be a part of," said Flacco, who completed 18 of 32 passes for 117 yards, no touchdown passes and two interceptions. "We've got a lot to work on, obviously. We're a lot better than that. A pretty poor showing, but you got to keep your head up and you got to move on quick."
The Ravens packed up their bags quietly and headed to California, where the team will spend the week preparing for next Sunday's game at the Oakland Raiders. There was plenty to think about, from missed opportunities to the crushing Suggs injury to a total lack of rhythm and cohesion in Marc Trestman's debut as offensive coordinator.
After a first half in which they scored just three points and gained 38 total yards, the Ravens finished the game with just 173 yards of total offense. The running game, supposedly the team's strength, never got on track as the team rushed for just 73 yards and averaged 3.2 yards per carry. The offensive line, which lost starting left tackle Eugene Monroe to a concussion early in the first quarter, struggled to open up running lanes for Justin Forsett and deal with Broncos edge rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.
And Flacco, partly because he didn't have a lot of time and also because receivers weren't getting separation, was never able to get anything going down the field. The Ravens' two leading receivers were fullback Kyle Juszczyk (four catches for 17 yards) and Forsett (4 catches for 13 yards). For one day, the preseason concerns about whether the Ravens have enough playmakers and speed on offense proved legitimate.
"We've just got to be able to spread them out a little more and just not let them pin their ears back and come after us a little bit," Flacco said. "I don't think we ever got those guys out of rhythm. They were just able to play downhill in the run game, and they were able to get after the quarterback without really any repercussions, so it just made it difficult for us."
Yet still, the Ravens had an opportunity to win the game. Trailing 19-13 late in the fourth quarter after Brandon McManus' fourth field goal had given the Broncos a six-point lead, Flacco drove the Ravens deep inside Broncos territory. He hit tight end Crockett Gillmore for 14 yards on a fourth-and-9 and then Forsett ran for 20 yards on third-and-2.
The Ravens first thought they had the game-tying touchdown when Flacco lofted a pass from the Broncos' 16 to Steve Smith Sr. just inside the end zone. Smith was unable to make the catch before he went out of bounds.
"I make that play in the corner of the end zone and we're talking about something totally different," said Smith, who had two catches for 13 yards on the Ravens' first drive and didn't have a reception the rest of the game. He also was the intended receiver on Talib's interception. "It didn't get tipped. I just didn't catch it. I'm a No. 1 receiver and that's a No. 1 play. I got to make that. Ultimately, just the way I feel, that's on me. That falls on my hands. I have to be better."
On the next play, Flacco tried lofting a pass to Gillmore in the middle of the end zone, but he was covered tightly by safety David Bruton Jr. The ball deflected off Gillmore's hands and was intercepted in the end zone by former Raven Darian Stewart. That provided a fitting end for the Ravens, who were so close at times, but couldn't make the plays.
"I got to come down with that. I was given an opportunity and I just got to make a play," Gillmore said. "I got to win the one-on-one part of it and if the ball is there, it's got to be mine. There's no other option. They made a play."
The interception sealed a Broncos victory in a game during which Manning completed just 24 of his 40 passing attempts for 175 yards and one interception. Not only could he not get the Broncos in the end zone, but like Flacco, Manning provided the Ravens with their only points when he was picked off by Jimmy Smith early in the third quarter and Smith returned it 23 yards for a touchdown.
Otherwise, the Ravens defense put steady pressure on Manning, sacking him four times and taking away the deep part of the field.
"It might have be the greatest defensive football game I've ever been a part of as a coach," said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, who was coaching his first game with Denver after serving as the Ravens' offensive coordinator last year. "On both sides of the ball, it was just tremendous. It was a battle all day."
In the end though, it was the Broncos who had made the final play.
"We've got to do better in all phases: offense, defense, special teams," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We all have to do better. That's what you do. You take it from where you're at and you find a way to improve."