Peyton Manning played 19 postseason games before this weekend. The Ravens played 10 postseason games in five years entering the weekend.
Manning and the Ravens played five or six more postseason games each on Saturday.
Saturday’s 38-35 Ravens victory over the Broncos, one of the biggest upsets of the year, one of the longest, greatest, most astounding games in NFL history, felt like every other Ravens or Manning playoff game ever played, compressed like panini bread, with a brand new game layered on top of it. The game had everything you would expect, plus a few things you would not have predicted with a hundred guesses:
You expected: Joe Flacco bombs. That’s what Flacco does, and he did it often on Saturday. Some landed in Torrey Smith’s arms for touchdowns. Others sailed over Smith’s head or led Anquan Boldin out of bounds. One caused pass interference to set up the Ravens first touchdown, because pass interference is the dinner roll of the Ravens meat and potatoes offense.
You did not expect: A 70-yard Joe Flacco bomb to tie the game 35-35 with 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Rahim Moore did not expect it, which is a bad thing, because Moore was the deep safety on the side of the field where Flacco found Jacoby Jones looking lonesome. Moore stood flat-footed as Jones streaked up the sideline, then tumbled backward in a desperate effort to correct his mistake. It was as if Moore, like so many others, assumed that only elite quarterbacks can tie playoff games in the final seconds, reasoned that Flacco is not an “elite” quarterback by the sliding standards set by those who slide such standards, and therefore figured that safeties were free to double as spectators to historic inevitability.
You expected: One team to make big plays in the return game.
You did not expect: That team to be the Broncos, who got kickoff and punt return touchdowns from Trindon Holliday, a 5-foot-5 knockaround guy released by the Texans earlier in the year. The Ravens allowed just 23.2 yards per kickoff return in the regular season and, more importantly, only allowed 37 kickoff returns at all: rookie Justin Tucker produced 49 touchbacks, the fifth highest total in the NFL. But kicking conditions were strange on an icy night -- a 52-yard field goal attempt by Matt Prater carried as if the ball was filled with marshmallow Fluff -- and the Ravens coverage units made some lapses that would qualify as shocking in a typical, non-bonkers game. Also, Peyton Manning had never benefited from a kick or punt return touchdown in a playoff game before Saturday, because the Colts believed that fair catches were a wholesome, non-showy way to “frame” his brilliant offensive drives. If you expected Manning to get two touchdowns from his special teams and still come away with a loss, then you are simply lying.
You expected: A hard-fought, scrappy game, with lots of close plays.
You did not expect: 18 combined penalties for 145 yards, four replay reviews, and numerous instances in which there was no replay review but the referees mulled around like it was a 63-degree afternoon and no one had a night game to watch or frostbite or anything. The game was bogged down in stoppages at times. At one point in the third quarter, there were six penalties, a fumble, and a fumble that was negated by a penalty in less than two minutes of game time. Some trimming will be done in the editing room before this game goes into the NFL Films vault as one of the best ever.
You expected: Vintage Peyton hand gestures, and you got them. Manning chewed scenery like Russell Crowe in Les Miserables, saving the most flamboyant emoting for when he wanted to disguise a handoff up the middle. In one memorable fourth-quarter sequence, Manning made a flying birdie motion with his palms to one receiver, then made rootin-tootin’ six shooter motions with his fingers to another, then did the “This is the church, this is the steeple” move with crossed hands to a third, before finally throwing a pass to Demaryius Thomas. That play ended, of course, with a penalty.
You did not expect: Peyton Manning kneeling to kill the clock with the score tied, 31 seconds left, two timeouts, and field goal range roughly 45 yards away. Broncos coach John Fox was involved in the one of the other candidates for longest playoff game in history: a 29-23 Panthers victory over the Rams after the 2003 season. Fox may have wanted another shot at history, or he may have gotten mixed up and thought Jake Delhomme was still his quarterback. Manning himself audibled to running plays as the Broncos tried to kill the clock on the previous drive, but Manning did not expect to watch Rahim Moore watching Joe Flacco play hero.
You expected: Hall of Fame-caliber defenders Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Champ Bailey to be a big part of the story.
You did not expect: Champ Bailey to get burnt several times by Smith or Reed to be most conspicuous by his absence, with three uneventful tackles and a bad-idea punt return in overtime. (Inserted for his veteran savvy, Reed fielded a punt inside the five-yard line.) Lewis had 17 tackles, but in a moment that appeared to signify the end of an era of Ravens football, he chased Thomas toward the end zone after a screen pass and … tripped over Reed. The guard changed in Baltimore: Corey Graham caught the tip drill interceptions instead of Reed, Paul Kruger made the open-field plays instead of Lewis, and Terrell Suggs recorded two sacks to ensure a smooth transition.
You expected: Peyton Manning to lead an inspired drive in the fourth quarter to take the lead, assuming you are a Manning fan who recognizes his status as one of the greatest players in NFL history. Or, you expected Peyton Manning to come up short and commit several turnovers in a cold-weather game, if you are a subscriber to the chokity-choke chokarific chokezilla chokesanity school of irrational Manning bashing.
You did not expect: Both.
There is so much more. You did not expect the Ravens to lose their running game (they went through one sequence where Rice got three carries in 18 offensive plays) then rediscover it before disaster struck. You did not expect Knowshon Moreno to catch a touchdown pass on a stop-and-go route from an empty backfield set, then leave the game with a knee injury. You did not expect Jacoby Jones to be the hero of a playoff game. You did not expect Brandon Stokely to nearly be the hero of a playoff game in the second decade of the 21st century. You did not expect Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie to get away with so much holding in a game with 18 penalties. You did not expect Von Miller to finally escape all of that holding, crash into Flacco’s legs, bounce off, and briefly hurt himself.
Simultaneously confirming and defying expectations may be the mark of a truly great game. The Ravens upset made a mockery of all the easy storylines and lazy mythmaking. Great quarterbacks like Manning lead game-winning drives in playoff games, but those drives don’t always win games. Ordinary players like Trindon Holliday have career games, yet remain ordinary. Flacco keeps showing up in the AFC Championship game, whether anyone thinks he belongs there or not. Nothing about the Ravens upset turned out the way we expected, yet everything did: Manning audibled and battled, Flacco bombed, Lewis tackled and howled, Fox played it safe. Both Manning and the Broncos have a habit of first round losses after magnificent seasons, and the Ravens have a way of lingering. It all happened again, the expected result you could not expect.
Saturday’s Ravens upset was a Ravens game and a Manning game like any other. Only more so.