So the one play that devastated the Denver Broncos back on Jan. 12 wound up arguably deciding the Super Bowl winner. If that single play had gone the other way, Colorado probably would be reveling this week in an NFL championship.
That play, of course, was the improbable 70-yard pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones — made possible by Denver safety Rahim Moore botching his try to knock the ball down — with 31 seconds left in regulation and Baltimore out of timeouts. Instead of Denver winning 35-28 and hosting New England in the AFC Championship Game, Baltimore won in overtime and suddenly felt destined to go all the way.
Sunday, there was Jones again, delivering the most pivotal plays of Super Bowl XLVII: a remarkable falling catch and run to a 51-yard touchdown near halftime, followed by his 108-yard kickoff return to start the second half. It gave Baltimore a 28-6 lead, enough that just two more field goals held off San Francisco's near-classic comeback.
How close was the game to being a 49ers victory? Perhaps just one second and/or one non-call.
Facing third-and-goal at the 5 inside the final two minutes, San Francisco snapped the ball late. Flags flew for delay of game, even though San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh had called timeout just before the snap. Also, what nobody noticed on that aborted play was that quarterback Colin Kaepernick had taken the shotgun snap and raced left toward what should have been the winning touchdown.
Next came the fourth-down pass into the end zone, with Baltimore defender Jimmy Smith (yes, he played college ball at Colorado) clearly holding receiver Michael Crabtree. But the officials made no call.
That's what happens when a team is meant to win. For so long, Denver looked like that team, until abdicating the honor to Baltimore.
While the nation marveled at how the Ravens wrapped up the final chapter of their improbable playoff run, surely the Broncos felt more pain. They knew how close they were, with Peyton Manning at the helm, to their own storybook finish. Manning was poised to win it all in his hometown of New Orleans. Las Vegas oddsmakers rubbed acid on the still-unhealed wounds, saying the Broncos were the only NFL team that would have been favored over both the 49ers and the Ravens.
So what can Denver learn besides the psychological lesson of never taking victory for granted? Let's look at what the Ravens had that the Broncos didn't:
• Leadership on defense. Having veterans like linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed setting the example for others was an ingredient Denver didn't have. Nobody was getting in everyone's faces, keeping them focused in that final minute of regulation against the Ravens. Instead, Denver's aging cornerback Champ Bailey was exposed by Baltimore's Torrey Smith, and nobody else took charge.
• Playmakers with great speed. When you have guys like Jones and Smith, you always have a chance. Denver had Trindon Holliday, but only to return kicks. Clearly, the Broncos still need at least one more true burner.
• More aggressive cornerbacks and safeties. Denver fired secondary coach Ron Milus after the Baltimore loss, for obvious reasons. But even though the Broncos seemed better after adding veterans Mike Adams, Tony Carter and Jim Leonhard in their secondary, you could see the Ravens' D-backs being far more punishing, with corners Smith, Cary Williams and Corey Graham as fearless as Reed and his partner at safety, Bernard Pollard.
It's obvious that Denver still has a Super Bowl-caliber roster. But to make another run toward a title, with Manning's window closing fast, the Broncos still should address those few areas that helped push Baltimore over the top.
If not in 2013, it might be too late.
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