TOP 20 GAMES OF 2012


Game 1: AFC divisional round


The 1987 49ers can commiserate. So can the 2005 Colts, as well as the '07 Cowboys. And the 2011 Packers certainly caught a whiff -- the stench of bona fide Super Bowl aspirations abruptly spoiled. That curdled-milk taste that comes from entering the postseason as a No. 1 seed and prohibitive conference favorite... then folding at first call.

Yes, many ill-fated clubs of yesteryear know the pain of the 2012 Denver Broncos, a team that won its final 11 regular-season games to earn the AFC's top seed, only to lose its first playoff bout to the Baltimore Ravens. Broncos vice president John Elway is all too familiar with this plight. Just ask him about his '96 squad.

On the plus side, at least for our sake, the Broncos' heartbreak came in one of the most memorable postseason fights in recent memory -- the No. 1 game of the 2012 campaign.

In addition to palpable playoff energy, our top game provided a half-dozen enormous plays. It was as though this contest picked up where our No. 1 Game of 2011 (Saints at 49ers) left off. Ravens-Broncos was also defined by the biggest play -- or biggest gaffe -- of the season, reprising the aftershock our No. 1 Game of 2010 (Eagles at Giants) triggered, following DeSean Jackson's return on a punt Matt Dodge sure would like to have back.

On NFL Network NFL Replay will re-air the three best games of 2012 according to Elliot Harrison on Saturday, June 1.

Game 3: 4 p.m. ET; Packers at Vikings in Week 17

Game 2: 5:30 p.m. ET; Seahawks at Falcons, NFC divisional round

Game 1: 8 8 p.m. ET; Ravens at Broncos, AFC divisional round

But before we get to the season's ultimate throw, it's important to understand why this divisional-round contest was so damn fun to watch. To parrot Frank the Tank from "Old School," it was so good! ... Once it hit your lips -- so good!!

The first time the Broncos touched the ball, Peyton Manning didn't even make it on the field, cheering from the sideline as his punt returner took it 90 yards to the house.

It didn't take long for the Ravens to respond to Trindon Holliday's return. A few plays into Baltimore's ensuing drive, Joe Flacco hit Torrey Smith with a deep-ball special. Fifty-nine yards, touchdown, and it's on.

On the very next possession, Ravens CB Corey Graham -- remember that name -- picks Manning and takes it back 39 yards for six. All of a sudden, it was Unlikely's 14, Favorites 7. Now it was really on.

It started to feel like Baltimore had a shot against the AFC favorites. Were the underdogs fired up by Ray Lewis, who had already announced his intention to retire at season's end, or chillaxed by the calm demeanor of Flacco? Didn't matter. What mattered was the Ravens were ballin' out.

The two teams traded blows like prize fighters in the early goings, treating NFL fans to one of the most exciting games of the season.

Even after Manning led the Broncos on two touchdowns drives, the Flacco-Smith vertical tango hit center stage once again. Torrey's 32-yard touchdown tied it up, 21-21 just before halftime.

The fireworks continued with the opening play of the second half, as Holliday motored down the field on a ho-hum 104-yard kick return.

The Ravens didn't panic, though. The teams exchanged a few scoreless possessions before Baltimore produced a clutch sack-and-strip of Manning, giving the Ravens the ball at midfield. Five Ray Rice rushes later, Baltimore hit paydirt, knotting up the game again at 28-28.

Entering the fourth quarter, this contest already had everything: two special teams touchdowns, two bombs for scores and a pick-six -- all without disintegrating into one of those nobody-can-stop-anybody affairs. The defenses did not play poorly; this was not a track meet. It had some balance. Shoot, Rice toted the rock 30 times.

Essentially, Ravens-Broncos was an impeccably even football game with one humongous tipping point, as is often the case when everyone's Super Bowl darling falls. With the '87 Niners, it was Reggie Rutland's pick-six. With Manning's '05 Colts, it was Ben Roethlisberger's one-handed, game-saving tackle.

With the Broncos -- and the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens -- the tipping point was the throw that flipped the 2012 season.

With Denver up 35-28 -- courtesy of a Manning-to-Demaryius Thomas touchdown -- Baltimore found itself in a dire predicament: 77 yards to go, 69 seconds on the clock and zero timeouts. Did I mention that Denver's defense had given up the second-fewest big plays in the NFL?

Fewest Big Plays Allowed – 2012 Season
  Plays of 20-plus yards allowed
1. Steelers 37
2. Broncos 44*
t-3. 49ers 47
t-3. Panthers 47
5. Rams 48
* six allowed versus Ravens in Divisional Playoff

After an incompletion and a scramble, the Ravens faced a third-and-3 from their own 30. Flacco dropped back and surveyed the field. Jacoby Jones -- the club's third wideout and typically its fifth option -- was streaking down the right sideline. No problem for Denver, though, as safety Rahim Moore was simultaneously tracking Jones and Flacco's glare.

The former Delaware quarterback released a moon shot in Jones' direction. Moore backpedaled, but didn't turn his hips to run.

"I was there, man," colleague Steve Wyche recalled. "That ball kept going."

"(Moore) didn't think Flacco could throw it that far," former All-Pro cornerback and current "NFL AM" analysts Eric Davis said.

Well, Flacco did just that. Meanwhile, Moore never turned to run it down, instead reaching up like it was a lazy fly ball. The Broncos safety could only waive his arms as the tail end of Flacco's heave fluttered by. The fly ball was a long ball -- in every sense of the term -- right into Jones' hands. The Ravens receiver cruised the final 20 yards to the end zone for the mind-blowing, game-tying score.

Jacoby Jones' touchdown will go down in NFL history as one of the most crucial plays of the Ravens' Super Bowl run

Denver would opt to send this game into overtime (more on that below), where both offenses could only move so far. Amazingly, just when America was emotionally drained but mentally ready for a Peyton Manning Hall of Fame drive, the Comeback Player of the Year threw a pick in his own territory. Who intercepted the ball? That man again: Corey Graham. Justin Tucker eventually nailed a 47-yard field goal, completing the comeback heard ‘round the football world.

And just like that, another Super Bowl champ-to-be fell victim to the dreaded one-and-done for No. 1.

Historical Symmetry: Manning's overtime interception sure looked familiar: A future Hall of Fame quarterback, lacking some arm strength from earlier days, running right while trying to throw across his body, leading to a terrible result in the postseason...

My friends, that was Brett Favre's interception near the end of regulation in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, pretty much to the letter, no?

Here is some outstanding analysis of that fateful throw from three years ago.

(Almost) Play of the Game: Well, the Broncos' last drive is the (Almost) Play of the Game because they didn't run any plays.

After Jones' improbable touchdown, Denver had 31 seconds and two timeouts to work with. Oh, and Peyton Manning under center. So what did John Fox do with the opportunity to prevent this game from spilling into overtime? Nada.

Believe me, he's taken some criticism for the conservative approach, too. Here's his explanation of the thought process that went into that infamous kneel-down.

After an uneven regular season, Joe Flacco was nothing short of spectacular in the postseason, and this was his coming out party.

Best Player on the Field: Joe Flacco. The Ravens quarterback continued his $120.6 million postseason, completing 18 of his 34 passes for 331 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Why This Game is No. 1: When the dust settled on the 2012 season, two games remained in everyone's memory, regardless of what team you support: the "Fail Mary" stunner and Ravens-Broncos.

While Packers-Seahawks will be relived for years to come, "most memorable" does not always translate to "best." Among the people I canvassed regarding the top games of 2012, there was little debate as to which contest deserved the No. 1 spot.

Anyone who follows the NFL closely -- be it professionally or as a fan -- realized we were watching the game of the year well before Tucker's kick sailed through the uprights at the beginning of the second overtime.

Visit NFL Game Center for more on Ravens at Broncos, AFC divisional round.