Keeping Score

The NFL’s Thrilling Playoff Weekend: Did Fear Cost Peyton Manning?

Denver coach John Fox should have taken a shot to win the game in regulation. After all, Matt Ryan and the Falcons pulled it off.

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Dustin Bradford / Getty Images Sport

Peyton Manning during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 12, 2013 in Denver.

On Sunday afternoon, amidst all the disbelieving Tweets about Atlanta’s stunning 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, one stood out, from New York Post sports columnist Mike Vaccaro. He wrote: “Whatever criticism John Fox endured yesterday? He should get twice as much now. Ryan did what Fox wouldn’t allow Peyton to do.”

If you weren’t attached to your couch all weekend watching the four NFL divisional round playoff games — and really, it’s the best football weekend of the year, with the top eight teams in the NFL all trying to advance — we’ll explain. On Saturday night, the inexplicable happened. The Denver Broncos held a 35-28 lead over the Baltimore Ravens with 42 seconds left: all Denver had to do was sit back in the prevent defense and, you know, prevent the Ravens from scoring a game-tying touchdown.

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But Denver safety Rahim Moore forgot to fall all the way back, and misjudged his jump on Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco’s long throw, like a centerfielder with a bad beat on a fly ball. “The season ended on me,” Moore said afterwards. The pass fell into the hands of Jacoby Jones, who scored on a 70-yard touchdown, to tie it up. Sports Authority Stadium, home of the Broncos, fell silent. People in their living rooms screamed. I fell on the floor.

Tie game. But 31 seconds still remained. Denver had two timeouts, and the ball at its own 20. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is one of the best of all-time. Two or three quick completions, and Denver would be in field goal range.

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Denver coach John Fox, however, decided to sit on the ball, and head for overtime — where Manning threw an interception that set up Baltimore’s game-winning field goal. “Thirty seconds, it’s hard to go the length of the field, some bad stuff can happen — as you saw at the end of the game,” Fox said afterwards. But bad things can happen when you walk down the street. If Denver took a shot, and Manning fumbled or threw an interception or whatever, sure, that’s a bad thing. But it’s not a bad decision. Putting the game in the hands of a Hall of Famer is common sense.

After all, if Matt Ryan can pull it off, so can Peyton Manning. Ryan’s Falcons had the ball at their own 28, trailing 28-27 with 25 seconds left, needing to advance into field goal range to pull out a game they led 20-0 at halftime. Sure, Atlanta was losing, and thus needed to advance the ball: as the top overall seed in the NFL, a loss would have devastated the franchise, and Ryan, considering that he entered the game on the back of three previous playoff defeats.

But as Vaccaro noted, the circumstance was similar to Denver’s: pass, pass, field goal. And that’s exactly what Ryan did, completing two passes downfield to set up Matt Bryant’s 49-yard do-or-die try. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll gave Atlanta a gift: he called timeout right before Bryant kicked, to “ice” him. The Falcons played through the whistle, however, and Bryant missed it. He got a mulligan — and nailed it. Atlanta won the game.

If Fox took a shot in the Denver-Baltimore game, there’s no guarantee Manning would have matched Ryan’s clutch performance. But we’ll never know, and that stinks. Peyton Manning’s window is closing: who knows how many more playoff shots he will get? So Baltimore travels to New England in the AFC championship game, and Atlanta hosts San Francisco, who beat Green Bay 45-31 behind the dazzling play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the season on the sidelines, as a backup. By the end of his first ever playoff game, he’d rushed for a quarterback-record 181 yards and had two touchdowns of his own.

It’s time for championship Sunday. Let’s hope no one plays scared.

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