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Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens feel unstoppable after stunning win

DENVER -- Moments after his team's epic, 38-35 double-overtime KO of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Saturday, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice did a quasi-Lambeau Leap into the stands of Sports Authority Field. He sat there, in arctic temperatures, screaming about how he was going to take his time getting to the locker room.

The underdog had vanquished another playoff foe. Get a good, long look, he was saying. Baltimore is the team to beat.

Frozen, heartbroken Broncos fans walked away from the flexing, boasting Rice. The sight of him camped out victorious in their house, after they'd expected Peyton Manning and that No. 1 seed to take Denver to glory, was too much.

In Baltimore's locker room, players publicly said they didn't care who they played in the AFC Championship Game. Privately, though, some members of the organization said they wanted the team they eventually got: the New England Patriots. They want this journey to be whole. Andrew Luck. Peyton Manning. Tom Brady.

It's not about "get-back" for losing to the Patriots in last season's conference championship; the Ravens settled that score with a 31-30 victory over New England in Week 3. It's about letting the world know that the Ravens got nothing easy en route to Super Bowl XLVII.

Now that the Ravens have found their center following linebacker Ray Lewis' announcement that he'll retire after the season, they feel like an immovable force.

"Our guy (Lewis), every game can be his last game," Rice said. "Nothing against anyone else, but this is for real here."

The follow-up question was easy: Is this the company line for the feel-good send-off?

"This is for real," Rice said. "This team is special and he's the leader. This team is so unselfish."

Lewis did his part on Saturday, recording 17 tackles in the marathon matchup.

Wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who caught the 70-yard touchdown pass on an "all-go" route that sent the game into overtime, said Baltimore is in a situation where it can never doubt. Regardless of the circumstances, he said, the Ravens have learned to keep pushing, because magic can happen, like it did Saturday when Denver safety Rahim Moore misjudged the deep ball Jones caught.

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Now -- with a cause -- the Ravens feel they have something working. The defense is healthier and playing like it (two of Denver's touchdowns, remember, came on Trindon Holliday returns). Quarterback Joe Flacco has shown up, too, leading an offense that has gotten steadier since Jim Caldwell took over for the fired Cam Cameron as play caller on Dec. 10. In two playoff games, the Ravens have scored a total of 62 points.

Rice told me the Ravens had better do everything they can to keep Caldwell, the former Indianapolis Colts head coach.

"We're staying in the offense," Rice said. "We're doing what we do and going out and executing it. It's what (Caldwell) did all those years with Peyton (when both were in Indy), and we're doing it here. You see Joe has been playing better, and so has the offensive line. We all are."

Conversely, Manning's magical season ended with a Brett Favre-like finish, Corey Graham picking off an ill-advised throw in the first overtime period as Manning's health seemingly betrayed him with each degree drop in temperature.

The parallels can't be overlooked.

Both future Hall of Fame quarterbacks put together stunning seasons after leaving franchises they'd spent their careers uplifting, only to slip at the moment when they were set to build on their legacies.

Favre had the Minnesota Vikings on the verge of playing in the Super Bowl, but he threw an interception to former New Orleans Saints cornerback Tracy Porter after taking an inhumane pounding in the 2009 NFC Championship Game. On Saturday, Manning gift-wrapped that ball for Graham, which led to Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal in the early stages of the second overtime period.

The intermediate passing attempt fell in line with the throws Manning had been making throughout the game. He didn't go vertical. The lack of deep attempts spawned questions about whether the cold weather bothered the nerves in Manning's neck -- which hadn't seemed to be an issue during his MVP-caliber season.

Whether that was the case or not, Manning still threw 43 times for 290 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions -- both of which went to Graham, who notched a pick-six in the first quarter.

Graham said that the Ravens' defensive backs became more brazen as the game went on, since they weren't being challenged deep. As the possessions grew increasingly important, it seemed as if Denver was more intent on moving the chains than taking chances.

While we're left to wonder about Manning's ability to make plays in freezing temperatures, one member of the Ravens said a schematic ploy might have made the quarterback reluctant to pull the trigger downfield.

Baltimore had safety Ed Reed -- who has four career picks against Manning, including three in the postseason -- play center field nearly the whole game. We barely heard Reed's name called -- in part because he was lurking deep, tempting Manning.

"Peyton made plays," Rice said. "It's not all about making a lot of plays. It's about who makes the last play."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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