FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Vince Wilfork was a champion as a rookie with the New England Patriots. So, he wondered, how hard could it be to win the Super Bowl every year?
After the past seven seasons without another title, he has his answer.
"Winning one early in my career, you kind of get the sense that it happens like this all the time, but it doesn't," the defensive tackle said. "It's very, very hard to win at this level, at any level."
His college teammate at Miami, Andre Johnson, never reached the playoffs in his first eight seasons with the Houston Texans. He finally got there last year. On Sunday, he faces Wilfork and the Patriots in a divisional-round game.
"It means a lot," the wide receiver said. "It makes you appreciate all the tough times you went through to get to this point."
The Patriots (12-4) have a rich tradition of three titles in four years before the current championship drought. They won nine of their last 10 games, are coming off a bye and are heavily favored, having routed Houston 42-14 on Dec. 10.
The Texans (13-4) have a poor history with just two postseason wins in 11 years of existence. They lost three of their last four regular-season games, then edged the Cincinnati Bengals 19-13 last Saturday in the wild-card round.
Those differences aside, both teams are hungry to keep the season going — all the way to a Super Bowl triumph.
New England nearly won it last season, falling to the New York Giants 21-17 on a last-minute touchdown. That was a huge disappointment for special teams captain Matthew Slater, a rookie in 2008 who wasn't part of any of the championships. He didn't even win a playoff game in his first three seasons.
"To be able to come as close as we did last year and have past failures in my previous seasons here, it just drives you and motivates you more," he said. "We don't feel like we've accomplished anything. We don't feel like we've arrived at all because it's all for naught unless you do something in the postseason. We're very driven, very motivated, very focused."
Focused on the future.
The past — that 28-point romp last month — has no bearing on the rematch, coaches and players from both teams insist.
"I think it's a bunch of garbage," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "The game will have its own elements and it will write its own story."
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is tired of all the talk about that beating his team took.
"Obviously, we didn't play good last time we were up there," he said. "I don't think we need to keep rehashing it. I think we just need to play our style of football."
That style depends on Arian Foster running the ball. Do that well and the Texans can maintain possession and keep Tom Brady and the Patriots' league-best offense on the sideline.
It worked last Saturday against much weaker competition. The Texans outgained the Bengals 420 yards to 198 and held the ball for 38:49 compared to 21:11 for Cincinnati. Foster ran 32 times and caught eight passes, a total of 40 plays. The Bengals had just 48 plays all game.
And Foster's 140 yards rushing made him the only player with at least 100 in each of first three playoff games.
"There's nothing he can't do," Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. "He catches the ball extremely well. He blocks very well. The little things, as far as seeing somebody, it's almost like a chess move. He knows a couple moves ahead when a guy is coming so he doesn't take a solid shot."
The weak link could be quarterback Matt Schaub. He threw for more than 4,000 yards for the third time in four years, but in his last five games has just one touchdown pass and four interceptions. His passer rating against the Patriots of 68.8 was his third lowest of the season.
But now that he's gotten past the first postseason game of his career, he expects a much better performance.
"We go up with a lot of confidence," Schaub said. "If you want to move on, you've got to bring a sense of nastiness and attitude with you to go out and dominate your opponent on every play."
That's impossible, of course, especially against the Patriots' offense.
Brady's next postseason win will be his 17th, breaking a tie with Joe Montana for the most by any quarterback. He'll get a boost from having tight ends Rob Gronkowski, sidelined for the first game against Houston, and Aaron Hernandez on the field together for only the sixth time this season after both dealt with injuries.
"It's all about our execution," Brady said. "They were out there a lot together last year and when we executed well it looked good, and when we didn't it looked bad."
Another performance against Watt like the last one would help. The NFL sacks leader with 20 1-2, plus 16 passes defensed, had none of either in the previous meeting.
"I got quite a few hits on Brady, but, obviously, the ball was gone every time," Watt said. "That's why you get another shot, and this is the playoffs and I'm going to bring everything that I have."
The Patriots plan to do the same. Only two of their players, Brady and Wilfork, remain from the last Super Bowl-winning team in the 2004 season.
"We all play this game for one goal: to be champions," Wilfork said. "You can't take a situation and overlook it. And the situation for us is the Houston Texans. We can't overlook this team. We have to go in and play good football. If we play well, we'll be OK, but if we don't, we'll be in trouble."
And then that one-sided win just a month ago really would mean nothing.
"People have their own opinions about it, but we know what kind of football team we are," Johnson said. "We know if we go out and play well, we're capable of beating anybody."
Falcons try to end playoff woes against Seahawks
ATLANTA (AP) — It's 2010 all over again for the Atlanta Falcons.
Just like two seasons back, the Falcons finished 13-3 in the regular season. Once again, they have the top seed and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. This time, they vow they're mature enough to make the most of the opportunity.
The Falcons will try to end their recent trend of first-game postseason exits Sunday when they play the streaking Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs. The Falcons had a first-round bye last week while rookie quarterback Russell Wilson led Seattle to a 24-14 comeback win at the Washington Redskins.
The Seahawks (12-5) bring a six-game winning streak to Atlanta.
Atlanta had never managed back-to-back winning seasons before a new era began in 2008 with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons have five straight winning records and four playoff seasons, including three straight.
So far, all the regular-season success has led only to postseason disappointment. Smith and Ryan are 0-3 in the postseason, including a home loss to Green Bay in 2010 and an ugly 24-2 loss at the Giants last year.
The Falcons say they've learned from the playoff defeats and are better prepared this year.
"We've been here in the past before and now we're more mature," said safety Thomas DeCoud. "We know what we can and cannot do.
"It's a sense of pride, more of an internal sense of pressure rather than anything external. As professional athletes we all want to go out there and perform well and get this monkey off our backs, so to speak."
The Falcons can only marvel at Wilson's ability to pull off a road win in his first playoff game. Wilson completed 15 of 26 passes for 187 yards and ran for 67 yards in last week's win. Seattle overcame a 14-0 deficit to beat the Redskins.
Wilson, a third-round pick, has outlasted Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in the playoffs.
"My expectations are very high," Wilson said. "That's allowed me to be where I am today. If I listen to everybody who said I can't do it, there's no way I could play in the National Football League, there's no way I'd be starting in the National Football League. There's no way I'd be here today."
Center Todd McClure, in his 13th season, is the only holdover from the last Atlanta team to win a playoff game, in 2004.
"I feel like this is the best team I've been on since I've been here," McClure said. "I'm not just saying that. I feel like this is the best opportunity I've had and we've had to make a run. We have to go out on Sunday and execute. We have to play our best football to win this game and I think we're ready for it."
The 35-year-old McClure says he thinks he'll return for another season. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is 36, says he's 95 percent certain he will retire even though he made his 13th Pro Bowl. Among other key veterans on the team are cornerback Asante Samuel and running back Michael Turner.
Looking back at 2010 and 2011, McClure says the Falcons are fortunate to have this opportunity to make up for past postseason failures. He says there is no assurance there will be another chance.
"These opportunities in the playoffs, they don't happen every year," McClure said. "Some teams seem like they're in just about every year but you look over guys' careers and it's hard to get in the playoffs. Even if I do play another year it's not a certainty I'll be back in this situation. It's like that for everybody in this locker room. We want to take advantage of where we're at."
The Falcons' offense has evolved in the five seasons under Smith, whose early teams featured Turner's runs. First-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made this a pass-first offense with more screens and more big plays for Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Ryan set franchise marks with 4,719 yards passing and 32 touchdowns while completing 68.6 percent of his passes for another record.
With Ryan orchestrating the no-huddle attack, the Falcons have the ability for quick-strike big plays. It's a contrast to the Seahawks, who prefer to control the ball with powerful running back Marshawn Lynch, who set a career high and ranked third in NFL with 1,590 yards rushing.
"If we can hold the football, it's frustrating to an offense who wants to go fast," said Seattle coach Pete Carroll. "We're not trying to sit on the clock at all, but we're certainly committed to the running game. There is nothing better that we can do than to be making first downs and handling the football to keep them from being on the field. The best thing we could do is to keep them on the sideline, and the best way we can do that is to convert, and running gives us a great chance."
The Seahawks, only 3-5 on the road in the regular season, must make their second cross-country trip in as many weeks. According to STATS LLC, the only NFL West Coast team to win two games at East Coast sites in the same postseason was the 1989 Los Angeles Rams, who won at Philadelphia and the New York Giants.
Seattle lost sacks leader Chris Clemons to a knee injury last week. Rookie Bruce Irvin will start for Clemons, who had 11 1-2 sacks, at defensive end.
Losing Clemons is big for a defense that allowed only 203 yards — 99 passing and 104 rushing — against the Redskins.
"I think it's a matter of who can execute their system better than the other team at a higher level," said Seattle tight end Zach Miller. "It's going to come down to who is more on their game. We're similar type teams in that we don't turn the ball over. We don't make many mistakes."
Wilson said the playoffs are "time to do something special."
"Obviously we've got a tough seed in front of us," Wilson said. "We're going to Atlanta. It's going to be a hostile crowd. ... We just need to enjoy what it is and see what happens."
-- Charles Odum
Kaepernick delivers, 49ers beat Packers
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The unproven kid thoroughly beat the former Super Bowl champion and reigning MVP.
With a strong arm that allowed him to pick the Packers apart from the pocket and speedy legs that helped him break free for big gains, Colin Kaepernick did a little bit of everything in a record-setting, sensational playoff debut — and Aaron Rodgers just couldn't keep up.
Kaepernick passed for 263 yards and ran the San Francisco 49ers right back to the NFC championship game with a 45-31 win over Green Bay in an NFC divisional game Saturday night.
Kaepernick rushed for a quarterback playoff record 181 yards and two touchdowns and threw two scoring passes to Michael Crabtree. Next up for the Niners: a game on Jan. 20 for a spot in the Super Bowl, against the winner of Sunday's game between the Seattle Seahawks and Falcons at Atlanta.
"It feels good. We're one step closer to where we want to be," Kaepernick said. "I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team."
And what a playoff debut it was by the second-year pro making just his eighth NFL start. No doubting Jim Harbaugh's big midseason gamble switching quarterbacks now.
Rodgers never got in sync for the Packers (12-6), finishing 26 of 39 for 257 yards with two touchdowns.
Kaepernick ran for scores of 20 and 56 yards on the way to topping the rushing mark of 119 yards set by Michael Vick in 2005 against St. Louis. Crabtree caught TD passes of 12 and 20 yards in the second quarter and wound up with nine receptions and 119 yards for the Niners (12-4-1) in the NFC divisional matchup.
Kaepernick, sporting a burgundy beanie partially covering his head, was greeted at his locker after the game by former 49ers quarterback John Brodie.
San Francisco had 579 total yards with 323 on the ground, scoring its third-most points in the franchise's storied playoff history.
"Our offensive line did an amazing job today," Kaepernick said. "They shut everybody down inside. Our receivers, our tight ends, blocked great outside, and our running backs were running hard, so it made it easier on me."
Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each added 2-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter for the No. 2 seed NFC West champions, slim favorites on their home field in a rematch of Week 1. They added to their memorable night by setting a franchise postseason record for yards rushing, 119 of those by Gore to complement Kaepernick.
Rodgers, the former Cal star passed up by San Francisco with the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, never got going. Rodgers rooted for the Niners as a kid in Northern California.
This was another early exit for the Packers, who lost in the divisional playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants a year ago and were denied a chance to defend the title they won after the 2010 season.
Those Green Bay road stars of two years ago — they won three away from Lambeau Field on the way to the Super Bowl — didn't have it this time against San Francisco's stingy defense and a no-fear, second-year quarterback who would not be denied. A kid who was born in Milwaukee and grew up a big Green Bay fan until the day he was drafted in 2011 out of Nevada.
"I didn't know how fast he was," Green Bay defensive back Charles Woodson said. "Coming in I really never paid attention to it. But he is fast."
San Francisco advanced to back-to-back NFC title games for the first time since reaching three in a row following the 1992-94 seasons, with 1994 their last trip to the Super Bowl.
With the sellout crowd at Candlestick Park waving red flags reading "Quest for Six" — a sixth Super Bowl title, that is — Kaepernick did his part and then some to deliver in the first key step. Even after an early interception that gave Green Bay all the momentum in a hostile road stadium.
Kaepernick topped Vick's mark with the 56-yard keeper on an option play in the third quarter. That gave Kaepernick 163 yards on 12 carries, also setting a 49ers franchise record for the postseason.
"The execution for the 49ers on the read option was excellent, but our issues were bigger than that," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We did not a very good job of keeping him the pocket. He was able to get out of the pocket for a number of big conversions."
Kaepernick joined Jay Cutler in 2011 and Otto Graham in both 1954 and '55 as the only players with two rushing and two passing touchdowns in a playoff game.
David Akers kicked a 36-yard field goal moments before halftime to give San Francisco a 24-21 lead at intermission after Green Bay tried to ice the struggling veteran by calling timeout before his kick.
Mason Crosby's 31-yard field goal tied the game at 24 midway through the third quarter, then Kaepernick took over again. San Francisco's defense handled the rest.
Kaepernick had 11 carries for 107 yards rushing by halftime.
Pick six, no problem.
The strong-armed Kaepernick brushed off the interception he tossed on the fourth play of the game that Sam Shields ran back 52 yards for a touchdown, then took control with his pinpoint passing to his favorite go-to guy — Crabtree — and with his quick-burst ability out of the pocket.
"He does a great job of responding," Harbaugh said. "He has done that any time there has been an interception he has thrown, a safety or a turnover, he's responded with a scoring drive. That's rare. I think that's a rare quality. So far he's shown that he's got that ability to come back."
San Francisco, fueled all year by its near miss in overtime of the NFC title game, made it two victories against Rodgers and Co. this season after a 30-22 Week 1 win at Lambeau Field.
Kaepernick bounced back from the early interception and again after a second-quarter taunting penalty in which he threw the ball down in the face of safety M.D. Jennings after being hit by Jennings and Erik Walden. Center Jonathan Goodwin grabbed Kaepernick in an effort to settle him down after his 15-yard run was negated by the 15-yard flag.
Two plays later, Kaepernick found Crabtree for his 20-yard TD as San Francisco capitalized on another Packers turnover.
Rodgers answered right back on the Packers' next chance, driving his team 80 yards on six plays and hitting James Jones on a 20-yard touchdown of his own that tied the game at 21. Green Bay got help from a 15-yard personal foul penalty by Dashon Goldson for a helmet-to-helmet hit on DuJuan Harris.
"We felt like we gift-wrapped them 14 points off turnovers in the first half and our defense was playing all right," Rodgers said. "And then we just didn't get it done in the second half. I knew we were going to have to score some points. We knew we were going to have to put up at least 38 points."
Former California receiver Jeremy Ross fumbled Andy Lee's punt early in the second and C.J. Spillman recovered as San Francisco got the ball back at the 9. Kaepernick threw a 12-yard TD pass to Crabtree three plays later.
Rodgers' streak of 183 passes without an interception spanning the previous five games ended when Tarell Brown picked off the ball on a deep third-down throw in the second quarter.
"We expected them to try to get him out on the perimeter. But we didn't expect to let him do what he did," Woodson said. "Give him a lot of credit. He played a great game. He made a lot of great plays out there today. It was hard to swallow."
Harris ran 18 yards for a score in the final minute of the first quarter as Green Bay took a 14-7 lead. Rodgers connected with James Jones on a 44-yard completion one play earlier before Harris easily ran right up the middle into the end zone for a Packers team that managed 45 total yards rushing in the season-opening loss.
Such moments were few against a 49ers defense happy to welcome back All-Pro lineman Justin Smith after he missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps muscle.
Notes: The Green Bay defense gave up the most total yards (579), yards rushing (323) and second-most points in the playoffs in franchise history. ... San Francisco improved to 13-3 at home in divisional playoff games. ... The 49ers had 48 offensive plays in the first half to 20 by Green Bay.
-- Janie McCauley
Packers' D gashed in 45-31 playoff loss to 49ers
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — When Colin Kaepernick went back to throw, he found open receivers. When the Green Bay Packers had it covered, he scrambled for back-breaking gains. When Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers mixed in the read option, the Packers had no chance.
A week after holding 2,000-yard rusher Adrian Peterson in check, the Packers were run over and sent home from the playoffs with a 45-31 loss Saturday night.
"We just didn't have an answer," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "We couldn't find a way to get off the field on third down. We couldn't find a way to get off the field ever, really. He did a great job if he pulled it down to run. On passing plays, he did a good job of getting it down field. Also, when they were running that option play, we couldn't get it stopped."
The Packers (12-6) came into the game brimming with confidence after holding Peterson to 99 yards in a 24-10 win last week that set up a rematch of a week one meeting with the 49ers. That confidence only increased after Sam Shields returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive.
That would end up being about the only bright spot during a historically bad night for the Green Bay defense that gave up the most total yards (579), yards rushing (323) and second-most points in the playoffs in franchise history.
Only one other team has run for at least 320 yards and four touchdowns in a postseason game, with Chicago accomplishing the feat in a 73-0 win over Washington in 1940. Those Bears didn't have a quarterback who could paralyze a defense with the read-option and scrambles the way Kaepernick did in gaining 181 yards, a record for a quarterback in the regular season or playoffs.
"You can't let him out of there," defensive back Charles Woodson said. "It's that simple, it seems. You get good rushes on a guy like that and he finds that one hole, that one gap. When he takes off, he's out of there. It seems like it's 10 yards a pop every time he sneaks out of there. When that happens it's hard to defend."
Kaepernick scrambled for a 20-yard score in the first quarter. Then he set the rushing record for a quarterback in the playoffs when he faked an inside handoff to Frank Gore and raced untouched for a 56-yard score that gave San Francisco a 31-24 lead late in the third quarter.
"We didn't handle the read option very good and we didn't handle the quarterback getting out of the pocket," coach Mike McCarthy said. "You may not have noticed, but we did have a spy on him at times."
It just didn't matter.
Then the power running took over from there with Gore and Anthony Dixon each running for short scores that turned the tight game into a blowout.
It was another example of how San Francisco is a completely different team than the one that beat the Packers in Green Bay in September with the elusive Kaepernick having replaced Alex Smith at quarterback. The Packers seemed unprepared for Kaepernick's zone-read plays and scrambles, and they now will have all offseason to figure out how to handle them in the future.
"The one thing it does is it kind of makes you a little bit indecisive in what you want to do," Woodson said. "You want to shoot in there, but he may hold the ball and take it outside. If you go outside, he might give it to the running back and take it up the middle. It's one of those things that makes you play flat footed a little bit."
They even struggled when the Niners went to the air, allowing Kaepernick to throw for 263 yards and two first-half touchdowns to Michael Crabtree.
"To win a game, you need to make a team one dimensional, take away the run and make them beat you throwing," Hawk said. "That was our plan coming in but it didn't work out. It's crazy to end the season so abruptly like this but we know that's how it works in the playoffs."
That all proved to be too much for even last year's NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers to overcome. He threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns, but also was intercepted once and couldn't keep up with Kaepernick.
-- Josh Dubow
Ravens top Broncos in double OT
DENVER (AP) — Welcome to NFL immortality, Joe Flacco.
Somewhere up there in the all-time playoff archives near the "Hail Mary" by Staubach and the "Immaculate Reception" by Franco now lives the "Flacco Fling" by the Baltimore Ravens quarterback.
One big throw down the sideline, 70 make-or-break yards on a wing and a prayer — a high, arcing touchdown pass that soared through the icy air, flew over two defenders, landed in the hands of Jacoby Jones, saved the game for Baltimore and kept Ray Lewis' 17-year career going at least one more week.
The record will show Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime Saturday to give the Ravens a 38-35 victory over Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. The highlight? That would be Flacco's game-tying touchdown to Jones on third-and-3 from the 30 with 31 seconds left in regulation and no timeouts.
"At that point," Flacco said, "you have to start taking shots. You have to get a little lucky."
And while Flacco gets to celebrate that throw, Manning will have a long offseason to think about a really bad one.
On Denver's second possession of overtime, he stopped and threw across his body to the middle of the field and into the arms of Ravens cornerback Corey Graham at Denver's 45. Baltimore (12-6) ran five plays and gained 16 yards before Tucker sailed his winning kick down the middle.
The Manning throw, intended for Brandon Stokley, was one that quarterbacks from junior high to the pros are advised not to make. It's a throw that unraveled all the good Manning has accomplished during this, his comeback season from neck surgery during which he threw for 37 touchdowns and led the Broncos (13-4) to top seeding in the AFC.
"Yeah, bad throw," Manning said. "Probably the decision wasn't great either. I thought I had an opening, and I didn't get enough on it, and I was trying to make a play and certainly a throw I'd like to have back."
Lewis, who led the Ravens with 17 tackles over this nearly 77-minute game in 13-degree weather, kneeled down to the ground and put his helmet on the rock-solid turf when it was over.
"I've never been a part of a game so crazy in my life," he said.
After he thaws out, the Ravens, 9½-point underdogs for this one, will get ready for a game at either New England or Houston, who meet Sunday for the other spot in the AFC title game.
This game, the longest since the Browns beat the New York Jets 23-20 in 1987, was an all-timer — up there with San Diego's 41-38 double-overtime victory over Miami for drama. But Flacco's throw might best be bookended next to one made by Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, who famously brought the term "Hail Mary" to football after his game-winning toss to Drew Pearson beat Minnesota in the 1975 playoffs.
Staubach was near midfield when he threw his.
Flacco, who finished with 331 yards and three scores, was standing around the 20 for his throw, buying time in the pocket when he saw Jones sprinting down the right sideline into double coverage.
Defensive back Tony Carter slowed up and let Jones streak by him. Instead of staying step for step with Jones, safety Rahim Moore tried to leap and knock down the ball. Flacco, who throws the high, deep ball as well as anyone, got it over Moore's head and into Jones' hands.
"I started to step up in the pocket and I kept my eye on the safety's depth at that point," Flacco said. "Just felt I had a shot of maybe getting over him. At that point in the game, you don't have any timeouts, when you've got to go a pretty decent length you've got to start taking shots at some point. It happened to work out."
Jones caught it and pranced into the end zone, blowing kisses toward the crowd.
"I was kissing to God. I was thanking the lord," Jones said. "I don't disbelieve in myself. I've been believing in myself since I was born. Never no disbelief."
Moore was on the verge of tears after the game.
"The loss, it was my fault," Moore said. "I got a little too happy. It was pathetic. My fault. Next time I'll make that play."
The teams were tied at 14 after the first quarter, 21 at halftime, 28 after three quarters and at 35-35 after regulation.
They punted three times to start overtime, the last of them setting up Denver on its 7-yard line.
Manning was moving the Broncos along slowly and steadily. But on second-and-6 from the 38, he rolled to his right, stopped, planted and threw across the field. Graham stepped in front of Stokley for the interception. The Ravens D-back also had a first-quarter interception, which he returned 39 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
On many days, the two interceptions would have made him the star of the game. On this day — he was just another player making big plays for Baltimore. Even he was amazed at the Flacco-Jones touchdown.
" It was one of those miraculous plays," Graham said. "I don't think it'll ever be forgotten."
The wind chill at kickoff was 2 degrees, and Manning, wearing an orange-and-gray glove to get more feel in the icy weather, fell to 0-4 lifetime in playoff games when the temperature is 40 or less. He finished 28 for 43 for 290 yards and accounted for all three Denver turnovers — the two picks and a lost fumble that set up the touchdown that tied the game at 28 late in the third quarter.
Combined, the mistakes nullified a record-setting day for returner Trindon Holliday, who returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 104 yards for another score. Both were playoff records for longest returns, as was the 248 total return yards he had.
This was, more or less, the unthinkable for the Broncos, who came in on an 11-game winning streak and the odds-on favorite, at 3-1, to win the Super Bowl — in Manning's hometown of New Orleans, no less.
Instead, this loss goes down with the most devastating in Denver history. Right there with the 30-27 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 4, 1997 — another year when Denver looked very much like Super Bowl material.
"Certainly we did a lot of good things this season, but as of right now, it's hard to think about anything besides the loss tonight," Manning said.
Baltimore, meanwhile, will get ready for its second straight trip to the AFC title game.
Last year, Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal against New England that would have tied that game at the end of regulation.
This year, the Ravens had Tucker, and though the temperature was cold and the ball was hard, coach John Harbaugh showed zero desire to get the ball closer after Ray Rice ran for 11 yards to the Denver 34 near the end of the first overtime.
Tucker was making them from 67 yards in pre-game warmups and was practicing during the break between overtime periods.
"I always feel good when I go out on the field," he said. " Not many people get to do this. This is a heck of a lot of fun."
While he finished the day 1 for 1, Broncos kicker Matt Prater missed his only try, from 52 yards, when he hit the turf, then the ball, on an attempt at the end of the first half.
Broncos coach John Fox will be second-guessed about the decision to go for the long kick, especially considering the way Flacco responded: Throwing and completing three straight passes after the miss for a 58-yard touchdown drive that tied the game at 21 going into halftime.
The touchdown was a 32-yard connection to Torrey Smith, marking the second time Smith beat Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. Smith also got behind the 12-time Pro Bowler for a 59-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
"The first one — I lost it," Bailey said. "The second one, he just made a great play. I was in position, he made a good play. That's why he's in the league."
All part of an uncharacteristic day for the Broncos, who routed Baltimore on its home field, 34-17, less than a month ago.
But on this day, the coldest playoff game in Broncos history, these were different teams playing for different stakes.
Flacco improved to 7-4 in playoff game. Rice finished with 131 yards and a score. With Lewis manning the middle of the field, the Broncos offense didn't look like the well-oiled machine it had over a winning streak dating to a 35-24 comeback win over San Diego in October.
The Ravens, meanwhile, looked more like the team that began the season 9-2 instead of the one that finished it losing four of their last five. And boy did they and the Broncos put on a show.
"That football game," Harbaugh said, "did football proud."
-- Eddie Pells
Lewis' last ride has at least one more stop
DENVER (AP) — Deflated and nearly defeated, Ray Lewis slumped on the heated bench on the sideline, the hood of his heavy jacket pulled over his head. The final seconds of his brilliant career were slipping away, just like Demaryius Thomas had escaped his grasp minutes earlier.
"I've never been a part of a game so crazy in my life," he said.
Thomas' go-ahead touchdown had given Denver a 35-28 lead and now the Ravens were out of timeouts, deep in their territory. Under a minute to go, the "last ride" about to make its final stop on a frozen field in the Rocky Mountains.
Joe Flacco was buying time in the pocket, about to throw the ball away and bring up fourth down at his 30. Peyton Manning was about to beat Baltimore for a 10th straight time, and Lewis was about to call it a career.
Then Lewis spotted Jacoby Jones sprinting past him along the Baltimore sideline. More importantly, so did Flacco, who lofted a high-arcing pass into both double coverage and the frigid Denver night.
Safety Rahim Moore leaped for the interception, only he was a tad too early and a bit too shallow. The football settled into Jones' arms and he pranced into the end zone, his 70-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left tying the game.
Baltimore (12-6) would win on Justin Tucker's field goal in the second overtime.
Lewis' retirement party will wait for another day.
"Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. He grew up today," Lewis said of Flacco. "He grew up today and in the tunnel I told him, 'You're the general now. Lead us to a victory. You lead us today. I'm just here to facilitate things.'
"And to look in his eyes, he has something different about him today and I just wanted to encourage him. To watch what he did today is probably one of the greatest things I'll always sit back and remember."
Reminiscing can wait for at least another week. Lewis gets to play again, against either at Houston or New England in the AFC championship game.
Flacco was the hero, but Lewis wasn't a bystander. He was right in the middle of things, providing his usual unyielding leadership.
Lewis made 17 tackles one week after he led the Ravens with 13 stops against Indianapolis while playing for the first time in three months after being sidelined with a torn right triceps.
"We wanted to get this win for Ray and I was going to do everything I could possibly do to get this win," said cornerback Corey Graham.
He did just that, picking off Manning twice, taking the first one back for a touchdown and setting up Tucker's winner in the game's 77th minute with his second interception.
Lewis had a fumble recovery in the third quarter that was negated by a questionable hands-to-the-face call on cornerback Cary Williams, but the Ravens, who were thumped at home by the Broncos 34-17 a month ago, shook it off.
The Broncos (13-4) became the ninth top-seeded team to lose at home in its first game in the playoffs, and to a team that was coming off a short week and playing at altitude, no less.
"When you look back at it and let the emotions calm down, it will probably be one of the greatest victories in Ravens history," Lewis said. "It's partly because of the way everything was stacked against us coming in."
It was even better than his emotion-filled farewell to Baltimore last week, when he did his famous dance coming out of the tunnel and then again after lining up at fullback in victory formation.
"One thing about the playoffs," Lewis said, "the only way to top it is to win the following week."
He said he spoke to his team last week about dismissing all those who said they had no chance.
"What if we do the impossible?" Lewis recounted saying.
It wasn't just the lead-up to the game that was so daunting. The Ravens allowed Trindon Holliday to become the first player in NFL playoff history to return a punt and a touchdown for scores, and both his 90-yard punt return and 104-yard kickoff return were the longest in league postseason history.
"For us to come in here and win, nine- to 10-point underdogs, that's the beautiful part about sports," Lewis said. "That's the thing that, if I miss anything about my career, it will be to listen to what people say you can't do and then to go do it."
-- Arnie Stapleton
Holliday returns punt, kickoff for TDs vs. Ravens
DENVER (AP) — The shortest player in the league turned in the biggest performance for the Denver Broncos. And yet Trindon Holliday's record day still couldn't help his team beat the Ravens.
Holliday went 90 yards running back a punt the first time Denver touched the ball against Baltimore on Saturday. Then he returned the second-half kickoff 104 yards to become the first player to score on a kick and punt return in the same playoff game.
But the Broncos blew a late lead and lost 38-35 in double overtime in the divisional-round game.
And that overshadowed any accomplishment — big time.
"Oh, man, it was tough," Holliday said of walking off the field, knowing the season was over even though he returned two kicks for scores. "It was tough to see that happen."
The 5-foot-5 Holliday gained 248 yards on returns, the most in a postseason game. It also earned a healthy dose of respect from Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who's seen enough of Holliday to last quite a while.
"It was painful," Harbaugh said. "We just didn't cover very well and they just blocked it really well and this guy, Trindon Holliday, he's a really great player. I've never seen anything like that."
On his punt return, Holliday was barely touched as he sprinted down the right side of the field to the end zone, where a host of Broncos ran to greet him. Former Ravens returner Jermaine Lewis held the playoff punt return record of 88 yards against Pittsburgh on Jan. 20, 2002.
Holliday opened the second half by fielding the kick in the end zone, cutting left, slipping out of Chykie Brown's tackle and was on his way. On the sideline, Peyton Manning hopped up and down with every step Holliday took toward the end zone.
As soon as Holliday crossed the goal line, he spiked the football with authority and then posed for the cameras.
The previous record for a kickoff return was 102 yards by Atlanta's Eric Weems in 2010.
With those 248 return yards, Holliday surpassed the mark shared by Andre Coleman of San Diego on Jan. 29, 1995, in the Super Bowl, and Desmond Howard of Green Bay on Jan. 26, 1997, also in the Super Bowl. Each had 244 total return yards, and Howard was the MVP of that Super Bowl.
Holliday was assigned to the Broncos through waivers when he was let go by Houston in October.
A former track star at LSU, Holliday returned a kickoff 105 yards for a score at Cincinnati. The next week he scored on a punt return at Carolina.
Holliday sat out the final game of the regular season with an ankle injury. The time off did wonders and he returned to practice this week.
-- Pat Graham
Manning throws ill-advised pass in Broncos' loss
DENVER (AP) — Usually more comfortable in the pocket, Peyton Manning scrambled to his right to avoid pressure.
And usually so accurate, the Denver Broncos quarterback threw a pass across his body — an ill-advised toss he's gotten away with a few times over his career. This time, he wouldn't.
Late in the first overtime, Manning tried to thread the ball to Brandon Stokley, only to have the pass intercepted by Corey Graham. A few plays after switching sides to start the second extra period, Justin Tucker hit a 47-yard field goal to help the Baltimore Ravens rally for a 38-35 win in an AFC divisional game on a bitterly cold Saturday.
Like that, Manning was once again left out in the cold. He's now 0-4 in playoff games in which the temperature at kickoff is less than 40 degrees.
Manning even wore gloves on each hand to fight off the frigid conditions as temperatures that started out at 13 degrees dipped into single-digits. He heated up, too, only to cool off at the end.
"I wouldn't say I'm shocked," he said. "That's not the right word. I'm disappointed."
This loss may even sting a little more than any other for Manning. The Broncos were winning late in the game when Joe Flacco hit Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard TD with just 31 seconds left in regulation.
Soon after, the Ravens snapped the Broncos' 11-game winning streak and ended Manning's impressive comeback from four neck operations that kept him out all of last season.
"I accomplished a lot more this year than I thought I would have and I think the team exceeded expectations as well," Manning said.
To add insult, it was here, in this stadium, where Manning's predecessor, Tim Tebow, connected with Demaryius Thomas for a game-winning TD in overtime against Pittsburgh in the playoffs last season.
"I don't feel sorry for us," Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. "We just didn't make the plays we've been making all year. We've just got to get the job done."
After Tucker's kick, Manning began a slow walk to the other side of the field, where he worked his way into a circle of reporters that surrounded Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis. Once inside, he gave Lewis a quick hug before trudging off the field.
Lewis will play another week, his retirement party on hold.
Manning, well, his season is done. He made a costly throw at a costly time. Just like former Minnesota QB Brett Favre, who threw a bad pass in the NFC championship game against New Orleans three years ago that was intercepted and ultimately resulted in a loss.
"He (Manning) is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and for us to come in here and confuse him the way we did, and make the plays we did?" Lewis said. "We gave up two big special teams touchdowns, but the bottom line is, but we kept fighting."
The speedy Trindon Holliday had a big afternoon as he became the first player in the postseason to return both a kick and a punt for a touchdown.
And, still, it wasn't enough.
Manning finished 28 of 43 for 290 yards and three scores. But more memorable than those touchdowns will be his fumble and two picks.
Fumbles happen, especially when being sacked and trying to tuck the football back against his body. The play was reviewed and the ruling of fumble upheld. Not that Manning expected anything different.
"Probably a fumble," Manning said. "I tried to kind of double-clutch and I lost the fumble. ... It was certainly a possession I'd like to have back."
A familiar theme for Manning on this day.
And that first interception? That happens, too — it was tipped and Graham returned it for a 39-yard score.
The other interception, though, that's a throw he's made a handful of times over his 15-year career, especially with good friend Stokley the one running the route.
"Bad throw," explained Manning, who's thrown 32 postseason TD passes, which is tied for fourth all-time with Dan Marino. "Probably the decision (wasn't) great, either. I thought I had an opening and I didn't get enough on it. I was trying to make a play and it's certainly a throw I'd like to have back."
After all, one of Manning's most memorable completions in this comeback season was a TD toss at Carolina in November, where he rolled to his right, stopped and twisted, then threw across the field to Stokley.
NFL Films had Manning hooked up for sound that day. Coming off the field, he called that throw an example of "Rule No. 1 that you never do." But, Manning told Stokley, sometimes you throw caution to the wind.
This time, it didn't work out.
Now, Manning has an entire offseason to think about breaking "Rule No. 1."
"It's a grind," Manning said. "It does require a lot of work and a lot of energy. That's why it's disappointing, because of how much hard work and effort and time and extra meetings and extra workouts we put in to get to this point. That's part of it.
"You want it to go perfect and to win and keep going, but it's not the way it always works."
-- Pat Graham
Commentary: Ravens win is one for the ages
Just before the sixth quarter of one of the most fascinating and improbable NFL playoff games you'll ever see, Justin Tucker trotted out onto the field and did something you hardly ever see.
He practiced making a field goal. And for one of the few times on a frigid afternoon-turned-evening in Denver, something turned out exactly as planned.
The game that seemed like it was destined never to end finally did, much to the dismay of 76,732 shivering fans and a quarterback who had seemed destined to take the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl. It was Peyton Manning's interception that gave the Baltimore Ravens their golden opportunity in the 38-35 win, though Manning could hardly be blamed for the Broncos being in that position to begin with.
He was still playing deep into overtime for the same reason Ray Lewis will go on to play at least one more game before calling it a career. Lewis was on the sideline probably rehearsing his farewell speech when a shocking collapse by the Denver secondary allowed a game tying touchdown on a 70-yard pass to Jacoby Jones with just 31 seconds left.
Up until then, it was just about how John Elway imagined things going when the Broncos courted Manning during the offseason and let the orange-clad faithful in Denver know that Tebowtime was over.
A frigid weekend in January. A big-time quarterback under center. And a fourth quarter drive engineered by Manning that appeared to wrap up this playoff win with a giant bow.
Except the Broncos aren't one step closer to the Super Bowl. The Ravens are flying to either Houston or New England, and the way they felt after Saturday's game they might not even need a plane.
It was tough enough to win it. Trying to describe it all afterward might have been even tougher.
"Thanks for bearing witness to one of the greatest football games you're ever going to see," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That football game did the game of football proud."
Indeed it did, warts and all. Yes, the brilliant plays were all there — how many times have you seen a player start both halves with long kick returns for touchdowns as Denver's Trindon Holliday did? — but the miscues were almost as memorable and arguably more significant.
That begins with Manning, who was supposed to be the coolest one on a very cool field but had three turnovers that led directly to 17 points. It continues with Ravens punt and kickoff return teams that gave up scores that might have sunk any team that didn't believe like it was supposed to win no matter what happened.
"We never wavered, we never wavered," Lewis said. "This will probably go down as one of the greatest wins in Ravens history."
But the play that will be debated and dissected in Denver for far longer than Tebowmania ever lasted was the biggest gaffe of all. It came after standout cornerback Champ Bailey had already been beaten for two long touchdown passes, and everyone in the stadium was asking the person in the seat next to them what happened to the vaunted Broncos pass defense.
Eight men were playing off the line, knowing the game was theirs unless something freakishly horrible happened. Eight men who all knew a desperation pass was coming but somehow were unable to defend against it.
Eight men who could do nothing but watch as Jacoby strutted into the end zone with the tying score.
"You got to start taking shots at some point and it happened to work out," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It was pretty incredible."
There were snow flurries on the field and the wind chill had dipped below zero when Manning and Lewis met again at midfield, this time for the coin flip for overtime. The two were always intertwined in this game and both had their moments, with Lewis getting a team-high 15 tackles and Manning throwing for three scores, the last of which seemingly secured the win for Denver.
Manning had come back from a lost season and a potentially career-ending neck injury to win 11 straight games for his new team. Lewis was calling it a career, and using his pending retirement as one more way to motivate his team to keep playing.
They played nearly 77 minutes before it was finally settled by a rookie kicker who after the end of the first overtime period went out on the field to practice a kick. Tucker made 30 of 33 during the regular season, and this one was perfect, touching off a celebration on the sidelines.
Manning went over and gave Lewis a hug before heading into a somber, stunned locker room. He showered and dressed in suit and tie before coming out to talk about how hard it was for everyone on the team to have their season come to such a shocking end.
"You want it to work and keep going and win, but that's not always the way it works," Manning said.
Lewis was just as philosophical in victory, talking about higher powers and things that happen when men come together. He said he was particularly inspired by a visit he made to a Baltimore hospital Thursday night, where he saw sick kids who will never be able to experience the joys he has in playing the game of football.
"I challenged my team this week to not listen to anything outside our building, to buy into everything we are as a team," Lewis said. "When you get everybody to buy in, it's just so special to see it."
Even more special might be to see the Ravens in the Super Bowl.
And after a win for the ages, a lot more people are beginning to believe that's just where they will end up.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Broncos, Ravens brace for frigid playoff in Denver
DENVER (AP) — That glove Peyton Manning has been wearing on his throwing hand will come in quite handy Saturday for what is the coldest home postseason game in Denver Broncos' history.
Those not playing may want to sit on the heated benches — or next to the electric heaters — because the temperature was 13 degrees when the Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens took the field for the AFC divisional playoffs.
In other words, "bundle up," said Jim Kalina, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The coldest postseason contest at Mile High was 18 degrees for the 1977 AFC championship game, when Denver beat Oakland 20-17.
The chilliest home game ever in Denver? That would be 9 degrees against San Diego on Dec 10, 1972.
Being such a meticulous planner, Manning left nothing to chance in the weeks leading up this game. To prepare for the possibility of wintry weather, the four-time NFL MVP wore an orange-and-gray glove on his throwing hand the last two games. Manning has been quite effective, too, with the glove — his completion percentage has been almost 6 points better and his passer rating almost 20 points higher than without it.
The stickiness of the glove also helps Manning better grip the football, especially these days after the multiple neck surgeries he underwent during his season out of football.
"I certainly don't think I would have had to wear the glove had I not been injured last year," Manning said. "It's part of my injury, some things that I've had to adjust. I'm in a different body. Some things are different for me, so that's the reason for that as much as anything."
The cool weather certainly hasn't been friendly to Manning, who's 0-3 in playoff games in which the temperature at kickoff is less than 40 degrees.
And this game will certainly be well south of that number.
"It's going to be very cold," Kalina said. "There may even be a few flakes, but it shouldn't affect the game. Just really cold."
This isn't even close to the coldest game in NFL history, though. That distinction belongs to "The Ice Bowl" on Dec. 31, 1967, when the temperature at Lambeau Field reached minus-13 (with a minus-48 wind chill) in a contest between Green Bay and Dallas.
All week, Broncos players boasted about wearing short-sleeves despite the cool conditions. It was simply a matter of convincing the mind it really wasn't all the frigid.
"Once you get out there, you're on the field, you're just fine," Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas said earlier this week. "But if you're just sitting around, that's when it gets to you. As long as you're out there on the field and warm, you're good."
The field should be in solid shape, though, with more than 20 miles of water-heated tubing under the field to keep it from freezing.
-- Pat Graham