Maybe it should have been a lot colder.
Three seasons ago, the Ravens won a thrilling double-overtime playoff game at Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium when it was 13 degrees, the second-coldest kickoff temperature in the city’s history.
But on an 88-degree day — the city’s sixth-warmest — a defensive struggle couldn’t produce any late-game magic.
An end zone interception by ex-Ravens safety Darian Stewart quashed Baltimore’s hopes and doomed the visitors to a 19-13 loss Sept. 13 in front of 76,798 fans.
It was the Ravens’ third consecutive season-opening loss, but the defeat was made more bitter with the news that linebacker Terrell Suggs tore his left Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter.
Suggs, who tore his right Achilles two years ago during the offseason, is out for the rest of 2015. The team has already used its return designation on defensive end Brent Urban.
During spring practices, Suggs admitted that, entering his 13th season, he was “on the back nine” of his career.
“He’ll prepare himself and be the kind of leader that you love so much,” head coach John Harbaugh said of Suggs. “These are the things in life that happen. It’s how you react to it. It’s how you play the next game.”
In the final minutes, quarterback Joe Flacco (18-for-32, 117 yards, two interceptions, two sacks, 38.2 rating) drove his team from its own 20-yard line to the Broncos’ red zone for the first time in the game, converting a fourth-down pass to tight end Crockett Gillmore along the way.
But the fact that Gillmore was the target on three passes on the final drive led to double coverage on him in the end zone, which in turn produced the game-ending pick that Stewart snared off a deflection.
The Ravens’ lack of downfield targets was glaring; running backs Kyle Juszczyk and Justin Forsett led the team with four receptions each.
“We really didn’t do anything the whole game,” Flacco said. “I had plenty of air under [the pass to Gillmore]. It was one of those plays where you get caught in the middle and you think it’s going to be a contested catch. I maybe could have put it in the back of the end zone. I kind of wanted to give him a chance to go up and get it.”
It was a contest that featured no red-zone snaps by either team for 56 minutes and no offensive touchdowns at all. It was a strange affair that saw the Ravens hold the Broncos to 25 third-quarter yards, but trail, 16-13, after Aqib Talib’s 51-yard interception return touchdown.
That play changed all the momentum the Ravens had built up, and more went away when Suggs was carted off the field with eight minutes to go.
At that point, an 11-minute possession — the Broncos’ longest drive by time since 1994 and the longest of quarterback Peyton Manning’s career — set up a field goal and a 19-13 lead with 2:55 to go.
The game had a blue-collar, slow-paced feel to it, and it seemed that a defensive play would serve as a breakthrough. Early in the third quarter, cornerback Jimmy Smith, a Colorado alumnus, silenced his former fans by climbing over the back of receiver Jordan Norwood and deflecting the pass to himself. He ran back the interception 24 yards for a touchdown to give the Ravens their first lead of the day, 10-9.
“The coaches emphasized communication all week,” Jimmy Smith said. “We could hear each other, and we were able to get into the right checks all day, every time.
The moribund offense then got going, as a 22-yard pass to Marlon Brown helped set up Justin Tucker’s 44-yard field goal that extended the lead to four points.
To the surprise of some observers, the Ravens dressed only seven offensive linemen and five on defense. Defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan (knee) was among those deactivated, along with rookie pass-rush specialist Za’Darius Smith.
The visitors might have been thinking that a big-play game — the kind Denver used to blow Baltimore out in the season opener two years ago — could be in the offing, so not as much interior strength would be needed.
Not only did line judge Gary Arthur had to leave the game on a cart with a broken collarbone, but Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe had to leave the game with a concussion and James Hurst had to fill in.
Hurst was soon tasked with holding off edge rushers such as Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and it cut into the Ravens’ play-calling options.
As a result, Flacco — sacked a career-low 19 times last year, second-fewest in the league — directed an offense that allowed two first-quarter sacks and could only manage seven total yards (-1 passing) and one first down.
By halftime, those totals would grow to only 38 total yards — the team’s fewest since a 2011 loss in Jacksonville — and three first downs.
Manning (24-for-40, 175 yards, Interceptions, four sacks, 59.9 rating), a winner in 10 of his last 11 games against the Ravens, wasn’t sharp early, missing several open receivers — including Sanders in the end zone just before halftime — and getting his short routes deflected by close-covering linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith.
Mosley, the runner-up in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, got to Manning for two sacks, taking down a quarterback that had been felled only 17 times last season.
Despite a huge possession edge that could have worn out the Ravens early, Manning completed six of his first 13 passes, still managing a 9-3 halftime lead ultimately, the win.
“It was perhaps the greatest football game I’ve ever been a part of,” Denver head coach and ex-Ravens coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “We found a way to take it to the end.”
In Denver’s warm cauldron, the season’s beginning could mean a Raven legend’s end.
Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.
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