Paul Kruger was freezing in the near-zero cold of Sports Authority Field, struggling to catch his breath in the mile-high altitude and trying to keep his tired legs moving as Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game approached the end of its fifth quarter.
On the Denver Broncos’ 87th and final offensive play, the Baltimore outside linebacker was once more doing just what he’d done all day — chasing Peyton Manning.
As usual, he couldn’t catch him. But what the former University of Utah star did was even better, in this case. He flushed the future Hall of Fame quarterback out of the pocket and forced him to make the kind of mistake that Manning seemingly never could make, should make or would make in such a moment.
Rolling to his right, Manning threw the ball back across the field, enabling Baltimore cornerback Corey Graham to intercept the pass at the Denver 45-yard line. The Ravens moved routinely into position for Justin Tucker’s 47-yard field goal, giving them a 38-35 victory and sending them into next Sunday’s AFC championship game — at New England or Houston — for the second year in a row.
So the potential remains for another promising Ravens season to end somewhere short of the Super Bowl, as repeatedly happens to them. The truth is their latest quest should have ended Saturday, except they persevered through a game that was tied at 7, 14, 21, 28 and 35 — with that last deadlock occurring only because of Joe Flacco’s 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds remaining in regulation.
“Just a magical game,” Kruger said. “I’m so glad we were able to pull it off.”
The No. 1-seeded Broncos seemed likely to win in overtime, before Kruger broke free and chased Manning into all kinds of trouble.
Until then, it had been a frustrating day for Kruger. Involved in three sacks of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck last Sunday, Kruger got to Manning only once — and unofficially so, because his strip-sack was nullified by penalties on two teammates. Kruger did recover a Manning fumble that was forced by teammate Pernell McPhee, leading to a tying touchdown late in the third quarter, but he was unable to sack Manning.
The altitude affected him more than he figured it would, having grown up in Orem. “I mean, I couldn’t get my wind,” Kruger said in the winning locker room. “My legs felt dead. So we were just fightin’ and scratchin’ and doing anything we could at the end of the game.”
And he forced a legendary quarterback into a regrettable play.
“Yeah, bad throw,” Manning said. “Probably the decision [was not] great either. I thought I had an opening, and I didn’t get enough on it … certainly, a throw I’d like to have back.”
The sequence of events at the end of the fourth and fifth quarters turned everything that transpired previously into an afterthought — even Denver’s Trindon Holliday’s becoming the first player in NFL playoff history to return a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns.
Nobody ever led by more than seven points. Every time the Broncos seemed ready to seize control of this thing, the Ravens responded.
“It’s still surreal to me,” Baltimore tight end Dennis Pitta, of BYU, said long after the game. “I’m still kind of trying to refocus it. I’m just kind of out of it right now.”
But the Ravens are still in it, after nearly 77 minutes of football that featured all kinds of twists and turns, right down to Peyton Manning’s last pass of a phenomenal season — and the only throw that anyone will remember, for quite some time.