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Veteran center Matt Birk snapped to Flacco, and chaos ensued.
From a vantage point 35 yards directly behind where Flacco received the snap, you could see defensive end Elvis Dumervil whiz by left tackle Bryant McKinnie. While stepping up to avoid Dumervil, Flacco stared downfield, hoping to find a receiver who'd gained an edge on his cover man. Now defensive end Robert Ayers burrowed in toward Flacco, and the quarterback wriggled away from Ayers's pressure, still scanning the secondary. From field level the mosaic was difficult to read, just as it was for the desperate QB in the busy pocket. But there was Rice, free for the first down.
Some quarterbacks put off the big shot. Some would think it better to take the sure thing—to be within 60 yards with a fresh set of downs—than risk it all for a prayer thrown into double coverage.
"I knew I had Ray," says Flacco. "But when you've got 40 seconds left, no timeouts, and you're 70 yards away, you can't think about the first down. You've got to think about taking shots. Five yards? That's a waste; not worth the time. When I looked down the right side, I saw Jacoby with a step on his guy, and I saw the safety [Moore] sort of leveled off, slow coming over. That was my shot."
"The safety did a bad job tracking that ball," says Taylor, Flacco's locker room neighbor in Denver on Saturday. "You could see he was out of position."
Indeed, Moore had stared too long into the backfield instead of backpedaling into position to help corner Tony Carter. By the time Flacco set to throw at the 25, he knew he had to take the deep shot, a play that would match for pressure and downfield traffic the impossible pass that Eli Manning heaved down the left side to Mario Manningham in the Super Bowl last year. There is a flash of purple uniform slightly behind the corner, and the safety is spotted a second late in moving into coverage. From field level it is a murky mess with no certainty. Just a gut feeling.
"And some luck," says Flacco. As he wound up, linebacker Von Miller, the last threat to disrupt the throw, lunged at the QB, but he got pushed off track by Birk. "I had a chance to hit his arm and swat the ball," says Miller, "but I jumped too early and misjudged it." By that time, Flacco was in full throwing motion.
Says Jones, who caught only 30 passes all year, "All I could think of was, Joe might actually throw me this ball."
"The ball's in the air, and the safety's late coming over," adds Birk, "and I'm saying, Oh, my God! It's got a chance!"
WHY WOULDN'T Flacco be confident as the play developed? One thing Lewis had harped on to his teammates—he is Baltimore's unofficial speechmaker, often making more than one a week—is that they had to treat Saturday's game against a heavily favored top seed as David versus Goliath. Don't just compete in a slow-and-steady way; come out attacking. To an outside observer it made no sense that Flacco would go after celebrated cornerback Champ Bailey—the three-time All-Pro had given up only three completions of 20 yards or longer all season, playing man-up against the likes of A.J. Green, Vincent Jackson and Andre Johnson—but twice in the first half Flacco laid in perfect throws to Torrey Smith, for 59 and 32 yards, that went for touchdowns, both against Bailey. In total, the corner was targeted seven times and torched for five receptions, 128 yards and the two scores, by far his worst game of the season.