(Reuters) - The Baltimore Ravens fell behind the Denver Broncos four times on Saturday and each time they battled back to level the game with the final rally paving the way for a stunning playoffs win which epitomizes the team’s fighting spirit.
“This is a team of destiny,” said running back Ray Rice, who rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown in the thrilling 38-35 double overtime AFC divisional playoff victory.
“Just look at the way we played today - it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t perfect, but it was us,” he added.
Baltimore were 31 seconds away from elimination when quarterback Joe Flacco hurled a 70-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jacoby Jones to silence the home fans and send the game into overtime.
Then, after Peyton Manning threw an interception, Justin Tucker’s 47-yard field goal sent the Ravens into the AFC Championship game for the second successive year.
“This will probably go down as one of the greatest victories in Ravens history,” said linebacker Ray Lewis, Baltimore’s undisputed leader, who will retire whenever this season finally ends.
Last week’s 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts was Lewis’ final home game for the team he has played for since being drafted in 1996 but his farewell could yet be at the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
“It’s his last ride, why not send him off the right way,” said Rice, who feels that the Ravens, beaten by the New England Patriots in last year’s AFC Championship game, have made a leap in quality.
“These are the games we used to lose and now we are finding ways to win them,” he said.
The pressure was certainly on Flacco who, despite everything he has achieved, still faced questions over whether he had what it took to win in the post-season.
Three touchdowns, including that memorable pass late in the fourth, and 331 yards without an interception, were the perfect answer to the lingering doubters.
“He grew up today,” Lewis said.
“I told him in the tunnel, ‘lead us to victory’. To look in his eyes he had something different about him today. I’ve always been a Joe Flacco fan, but to watch what he did, this was one of his greatest days,” he said.
The quarterback agreed.
“It was pretty incredible, we overcame some things today and we fought to the very end,” Flacco said.
“When some of those things happened, none of us blinked, we just sat on the sideline and said ‘alright, it’s our turn’. Slowly but surely we were able to score points when we needed to and our defense was able to stop them,” he said.
In next week’s AFC championship game, Baltimore will face either the Houston Texans or the Patriots, who extinguished their Super Bowl hopes last year.
“We feel it is going to take a lot for somebody to kick us off the field in the AFC Championship,” Flacco added.
“We know what it felt like last year without the win, we know what we have put in this year so far to get back to this point so it is going to be a great game.”
Reporting by Simon Evans in Mimai; Editing by John O'Brien