After 2012's Season of the Rookie, the NFL has flipped the script in 2013. Welcome to the Playoffs of the Old Guys.
The Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons, each led by legendary players in their announced final season, will play for a trip to the Super Bowl next week after winning two of the wildest playoff games in NFL history this weekend. Baltimore, with linebacker Ray Lewis in his last year, outlasted the Broncos in Denver Saturday night in a 38-35, double-overtime thriller. The Falcons, with tight end Tony Gonzalez making his NFL curtain call, gave away a 20-point lead to the Seattle Seahawks before pulling off a 30-28 last-second victory.
Baltimore will take on the New England Patriots in the AFC title game next week, while Atlanta hosts the San Francisco 49ers. The winners will meet in the Super Bowl two weeks later. New England advanced by rolling over the Houston Texans, 41-28, while San Francisco turned an anticipated Saturday slugfest with the Green Bay Packers into a blowout, 45-31.
Baltimore 38, Denver 35
In the chaotic moments after Baltimore toppled Denver, CBS's sideline reporter found the always-dramatic Ray Lewis in a near fugue state of jubilant Old Testament ranting. "No weapon formed shall prosper!" he yelled into the icy night, quoting Isaiah, then symbolically broke away to embrace Denver's conspicuously non-prosperous weapon, Peyton Manning. But Lewis wasn't done, continuing, "Man believes in the possible. God believes in the impossible!"
Indeed, much of the previous four hours had been, if not impossible, then at least very unlikely. The game's 10 touchdowns were scored five different ways: six on passes, one on a Ray Rice rush, one on a returned interception and one each on a returned punt and a returned kickoff (both of the latter by the same player, Denver's Trindon Holliday, and both setting NFL playoff-records of 90 and 104 yards). Yet, while two sure-Hall of Famers dueling into double-overtime in a 73-point shootout was entertaining, it was hard not to wonder what Denver was thinking. Time and again, the Broncos appeared to have a chance to take control and, over and over, refused to do so.
Leading 35-28 with two minutes to go, Denver faced a third-and-7. A first down would win the game. Denver coach John Fox called a hand off to rookie Ronnie Hillman that Baltimore easily stuffed, rather than let Manning try his luck with a pass. Though that call was defensible, the defense Denver followed it up with was not. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco promptly found Jacoby Jones, left irrationally open by safety Rahim Moore, for a 70-yard game-tying touchdown with 38 seconds remaining. (And its not like there weren't hints a Flacco Fling was coming: His other touchdowns were strikes of 59 and 32 yards.)
Yet the Broncos still weren't done trying to not-win when they took the ball at their own 20 with 31 seconds left, two timeouts, and, well, a guy named Peyton Manning at quarterback. With a few completions, they'd be within range of a long field goal attempt in Denver's thin air. Yet Denver coach Fox told Manning, who had shredded Baltimore's defense all day, to run out the clock without attempting a single pass.
After a series of punts in overtime, Corey Graham picked off Manning to set up a 47-yard game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker.
Atlanta 30, Seattle 28
Tony Gonzalez is the best tight end in NFL history, setting every major record for the position in his 16-year career. He's been to 13 Pro Bowls. But until yesterday, he had never won a playoff game in the NFL.
Gonzalez made a tightrope-walking touchdown catch to help the Falcons rush out to a 20-0 halftime lead over Seattle. But as super-rookie Russell Wilson brought the Seahawks back to lead 28-27 with just 31 seconds left, Gonzalez thought his chance was over.
"I was thinking about it," Gonzalez told Fox's sideline reporter after the game. "I was like, 'I guess this is it, I'm going to go out with a heartbreaking loss after getting such a big lead.' I was thinking in my mind, 'It's not fair.'"
But the Falcons—and Gonzalez—weren't done. On a desperate final drive, quarterback Matt Ryan found Gonzalez for a 19-yard pass that set up Matt Bryant's game winning field goal.
"I've never cried after a win," said Gonzalez, according to Yahoo! Sports. "I was thinking, `Here we go again. I guess it wasn't meant to be."
But it was. Atlanta hosts San Francisco next week.
San Francisco 45, Green Bay 31
Colin Kaepernick threw his first touchdown of the day less than three minutes into his first playoff game. Unfortunately, it was to Green Bay's Sam Shields, who returned an interception 56 yards to put the Pack ahead.
And that was the end of Kaepernick's nervous mistakes, and pretty much the end of the Packers, too. Kaepernick baffled Green Bay for the rest of the day, passing for 263 yards and 2 touchdowns and running for 163 more yards and two more TDs to move the 49ers one game from their sixth Super Bowl.
New England 41, Houston 28
At this point, Tom Brady is trolling us. Three touchdown passes to…Shane Vereen? (Who now has four, ever.) Sure, Tom. Maybe next week you can challenge Ray Lewis to a Bible-trivia throwdown.