AFC West: Corey Graham

Peyton Manning Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning fell to 9-11 in playoff games with Saturday's defeat against Baltimore.
DENVER -- Before Jacoby Jones even crossed into the end zone to tie this classic game, Jim Leonhard knelt over on the field in utter disbelief and helplessness.

Was this magical season really going to go down like this? It couldn’t. Not with Peyton Manning on the Denver sideline. He’d make it better. He’d have overtime to counter a miraculous Joe Flacco bomb to Jones with 31 seconds to go in regulation Saturday at Sports Authority Field.

Right? He’d have to. Right? He’s Peyton Manning. In one season, he turned the Denver Broncos into perhaps the best team in football. He’d get it done.

Yet what the Flacco-Jones connection did was give Manning another opportunity to add to his playoff misery.

And he did.

This 38-35 Baltimore victory -- sealed 1 minute, 42 seconds into the second overtime -- will always be remembered not only for the Baltimore Bomb (really, can you count five better playoff plays?) but also as another postseason hit on Manning’s legacy.

With Denver trying to drive for a game-winning score late in the first overtime, Manning made a poor decision and was intercepted by Baltimore cornerback Corey Graham at the Denver 45. Baltimore won on a 47-yard field goal six plays later.

The interception was Manning’s third turnover of the game. The turnovers resulted in 17 points for Baltimore, including an interception return for a score by Graham in the first quarter on a deflected pass.

The loss is another chapter in the one flaw in Manning’s career -- he has not always been clutch in the postseason. Manning is 9-11 in the playoffs and tied for the most playoff losses by a quarterback. Manning also fell to 0-4 in playoff games when the temperature was below 40 degrees; it was in the single digits at the end of the game.

Is it fair to pin this loss on Manning and his lack of playoff success?

“He was trying to make a play,” Denver coach John Fox said of Manning’s last interception. “There were a lot of different plays in that game that were costly. That was one of many.”

Fox is correct. This loss was not all on Manning, not by a long shot. He had moments where he shined, but the stable of Denver goats in this game is crowded.

Second-year safety Rahim Moore might never be forgiven in Denver for allowing Jones to get behind him on the desperation touchdown pass. All Moore had to do was play normal defense, and he blew it. Future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey gave up two touchdown passes to Torrey Smith. Late in the second quarter, Fox called for a long field goal attempt by Matt Prater, which failed and set up a Baltimore touchdown just before the half. Late in the game, Fox got conservative. The vaunted Denver pass rush was nonexistent for much of a game that saw the NFL's No. 2 defense savaged. It also wasn’t a great day for the officials, who made several questionable calls.

In all, it was the perfect formula to suddenly end the season of the NFL’s hottest team and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Denver rode an 11-game winning streak into the game. Talk of the Super Bowl was legitimate.

But it all ended in a flurry of crazy occurrences. And Manning -- who had beaten the Ravens nine consecutive times, including last month in Baltimore -- wasn’t there to save his team.

It should have never gotten to the point of Manning needing to rescue the Broncos, though. According to ESPN Stats & Information’s win-probability model, Denver had a 97.2 percent chance of capturing the game before the Jones touchdown.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Jones, Rahim Moore
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsLetting Baltimore's Jacoby Jones get behind him was an unfathomable error for Denver's Rahim Moore.
Manning did enough in regulation to help his team win, despite the first two turnovers. But he also was not perfect. He wasn’t at his best, whether it was due to the weather or the pressure of leading his new franchise to a playoff win.

“I probably wasn’t quite as good as I wanted to be,” Manning said, “and it probably cost us a couple scoring opportunities.”

A master of the short pass, Manning had his first pick on a throw outside the pocket this season on his fatal interception, an example of his struggles throwing short Saturday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning completed 74 percent of his passes for 10 yards or fewer this season; Saturday he completed 65 percent.

He didn’t get much help, though. Manning was under constant duress in the second half. He dropped back 24 times and was pressured 10 times, according to ESPN Stats & Information, after not being pressured at all in 22 drop-backs in the first half. Manning couldn't single-handedly make up for the sudden lack of protection.

For the past three months, everything went right for Manning and the Broncos. On Saturday, it all crumbled.

This goes down as a miserable end to a wonderful first season in Denver for Manning. When the shock wears off, Denver will be proud of its campaign. The Broncos weren't expected to be in this game. Manning wasn’t expected to play at an MVP level, and Denver wasn’t expected to be a Super Bowl contender.

The future is still bright for Denver as it licks the wounds from its most hurtful playoff loss since 1996, when Jacksonville stunned the top-seeded Broncos in Denver. The Broncos responded by winning the next two Super Bowls in John Elway’s final two seasons at the ages of 37 and 38.

Manning will turn 37 in March, right about the time the Broncos, whose staff will now coach in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, will be planning to wipe off the stink of the defeat and try again.

Next season there will be bigger expectations and constant questions about whether the Broncos can rebound from this horrible day. Until then, we’ll all talk about another disappointing playoff outing for one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

AFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 7, 2012
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Denver Broncos

Key free agents: K Matt Prater (franchised), DT Brodrick Bunkley, S Brian Dawkins, TE Daniel Fells, FB Spencer Larsen, WR Eddie Royal, QB Brady Quinn, DT Marcus Thomas, LB Wesley Woodyard, P Britton Colquitt (restricted).

Where they stand: The Broncos will have plenty of salary-cap room. For a team that went from 4-12 with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to winning the AFC West and a playoff game in John Fox’s first season as coach, the Broncos are in position to improve through free agency. With Prater franchised, the team’s only priority unrestricted free agent is Bunkley.

What to expect: Don’t expect a huge spending spree. The Broncos are cash conscious and I think the franchise is still recovering from some undisciplined spending during the Mike Shanahan era that ended in 2008. We will see the Broncos try to add several pieces at lower prices. Denver could address needs at safety, running back, receiver, tight end, linebacker and quarterback. Keep an eye on players such as Washington safety LaRon Landry, Seattle tight end John Carlson, quarterbacks Chad Henne (Miami), Dennis Dixon (Pittsburgh) or Josh Johnson (Tampa), running backs Michael Bush (Oakland) and Mike Tolbert (San Diego), and defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene Cincinnati.

Kansas City Chiefs

Key free agents: WR Dwayne Bowe (franchised), CB Brandon Carr, QB Kyle Orton, RB Jackie Battle, LB Jovan Belcher, S Jon McGraw, C Casey Wiegmann, RB Thomas Jones, DE Wallace Gilberry, DT Kelly Gregg

Where they stand: The Chiefs are in great shape on cap space even after signing cornerback Stanford Routt and franchising Bowe. They have already done a nice job in free agency with these two moves and have a good, young roster. Kansas City can become a serious playoff contender with the right moves. It is likely Carr will leave in free agency, but the Chiefs should be able to re-sign most of their other free agents if they wish.

What to expect: I’m not sure we will see the Chiefs break the bank for any of the super-hot free agents, but I expect them to do some significant shopping. I think we could see Kansas City look for help at nose tackle, linebacker, safety, tackle, running back and quarterback. Of course, the intrigue could start if the team gets in on the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. But they could also look at several other quarterbacks, including Orton, Henne, Jason Campbell (Oakland) or even Quinn. They could also be in the mix for Miami nose tackle Paul Soliai, Saints guard Carl Nicks and running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), Bush and Tolbert.

Oakland Raiders

Key free agents: S Tyvon Branch (franchised), RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, LB Quentin Groves, C Samson Satele, WR Chaz Schilens, DE Trevor Scott, FB Marcel Reece (restricted).

Where they stand: The Raiders are one of the few teams that must get under the salary cap. Oakland coach Dennis Allen recently acknowledged the team has work to do. The Raiders have some contracts that can be easily restructured, but they also may have to cut some players, particularly on defense. Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and defensive tackle John Henderson are among the top candidates.

What to expect: The Raiders likely face some limitations once they get under the cap, but they can add two or three starting-quality players under the right circumstances. Their primary needs are on defense, starting at cornerback and linebacker. The offensive line could be upgraded as well. I think they can be in on the second wave of cornerbacks. A player to watch is New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, who previously played for Allen. There are some solid second-tier cornerbacks Oakland could be interested in other than Porter. There will be some good players available on both sides of the ball after the initial wave of free agency for short-term deals. Expect the Raiders to do some bargain picking during that time. I think Oakland will be interested in signing several of its free agents, but I expect Bush and Campbell will leave.

San Diego Chargers

Key free agents: WR Vincent Jackson, C Nick Hardwick, RB Tolbert, DT Antonio Garay, OT Jared Gaither, FB Jacob Hester.

Where they stand: The Chargers will be in decent shape and they are getting even better after cutting Luis Castillo, the retirement of guard Kris Dielman and the expected release of tackle Marcus McNeill. But San Diego still has a lot of work to do. They have the most priority free agents of any team in the division. Signing Jackson, Hardwick, Gaither, Tolbert and Garay will be a challenge.

What to expect: The Chargers will likely stick to their usual plan and concentrate first on their own free agents. But they also have other needs and they will likely spend more in free agency than they have done before under general manager A.J. Smith. I get the sense from some agents that the Chargers may spend wildy in an attempt to win back the fan base’s trust after the unpopular contract extensions for Smith and coach Norv Turner. The pair were brought back even after missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season. I also get the sense from inside the organization, however, that the Chargers will not act out of desperation. Look for the team to consider pass-rushers, nose tackles, safeties and offensive linemen if Hardwick and Gaither aren’t brought back. A receiver will also become a major need if Jackson goes. The Colts' Reggie Wayne could be an option in that case. A running back such as Cadillac Williams (St. Louis) reportedly will be in the mix if Tolbert walks. Soliai could interest the team as well. Chicago special teams ace Corey Graham may also be a target. If the Chargers want to make a huge splash, they could try to get in on Houston pass-rusher Mario Williams, who is widely considered the best player on the market.