By Kerry J . Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Slave to the Stats (@footballfacts)

That was an old familiar tune you heard in Denver Sunday afternoon – trusty old pigskin power chords that blast out year after year on the classic rock dial and give you comfort that some things never change in a world which moves at dizzying speed.

Peyton Manning had a whole new look and a brand-new back-up band in 2012. He smashed defenses and guitars all year, after miraculously overcoming a catastrophic neck injury that cost him the entire 2011 season.

It was the best rock revival this side of Rick Allen.

But in the end it was the same old story, the same old song and dance for a Manning-led team: the Denver Broncos rocked the regular season. They unplugged the amp in the postseason.  

Our friends in the heartland of Indiana know the pain caused by this serial heartbreaker:  

“It's been 10 long years and maybe more since I first set eyes on you

“The best years of my life go by. Here I am alone and blue.”

The Denver Broncos were the AFC’s No. 1 seed, a double-digit favorite at home and the first team in postseason history to return both a kick and a punt for a touchdown in the same game. Trindon Holliday was responsible for both scores, each of which gave the Broncos a touchdown lead.

With all that going its way, Denver beating Baltimore was as close to a sure thing as there is in sports.

Yet the Broncos somehow managed to lose 38-35 to the Ravens – yes, the same Ravens team Denver destroyed 34-17 in Week 15.

Rookie Justin Tucker booted the game-winning 47-yard field goal early in the second overtime, hitting his biggest kick of the year and erasing the bitter memories of Billy Cundiff's AFC title game gaffe last year.

Here are five classic statistical hits the Cold, Hard Football Facts recorded from a divisional-round game that had a familiar old vibe for NFL fans – especially of those who rock out each year to the Peyton Manning regular-season mystique and expect the concert to sound the same in the arena-sized rock of postseason football.  

1. Elvis is the King of Rock. And Peyton Manning is King of the One And Done

We know the Manning-ites out there will pillory us for it, but the reality is that the Manning we saw against Baltimore was not the same Manning we saw all season.

And that reality this year was consistent with historic reality: Peyton Manning teams dominate the regular season; they suck in the postseason. Saying that 2+2 = 4 does not make us haters, folks.

His effort against the Ravens was low-lighted by an early pick-six that gave Baltimore a 14-7 lead, and by another, more Favre-esque INT at the end of the first overtime session that set up Tucker's game-winning field goal.

Manning has led his teams to the playoffs an NFL-record 12 different times. His teams have been bounced without a win eight different times, also a record. They failed to earn a single victory in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012.

And it’s not like he’s entered the playoffs with bad teams, folks.

Quite the opposite. He’s consistently entered the playoffs with GREAT teams. The 2005 Colts, for example, were 14-2, No. 2 in scoring defense and the AFC’s No. 1 seed. They failed to win a single playoff game, losing to Pittsburgh, 21-18.

The 2007 Colts were 13-3, No. 1 in scoring defense and the AFC’s No. 2 seed. They failed to win a single playoff game, losing to San Diego 28-24.

And, of course, the 2012 Broncos were 13-3, No. 4 in scoring defense and the AFC’s No. 1 seed. They failed to win a single playoff game, too.

Notice a trend here, folks?

Naturally, Manning reserved one of his worst performances of the year for the playoffs:

  • 28 of 43, 290 yards, 6.7 YPA, 3 TD, 2 INT, 88.3 rating

It was Manning’s third-lowest-rated game of the entire 2012 season: 58.5 vs. Atlanta and 83.0 vs. Houston – all three of his lowest-rated games losses. That's how it works in the NFL, folks. QB puts up great numbers you win. QB doesn't and you lose.

In 14 of 17 games this season, including all 13 wins, Manning posted a passer rating better than 90, including 10 games better than 100. But in the biggest game of the year, he was once again merely ordinary. 

2. Joe Flacco is the anti-Peyton

We’ve never been high on Flacco because he simply does not put up elite, winning numbers.

But year after year, there he is going deep into the playoffs – often with teams that are merely above average.

His Ravens have won at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons – an NFL first which, in and of itself, makes Flacco the anti-Manning. And he’s playing in the AFC title game for the third time in his career.

Manning, by the way, has also played in three AFC title games, for those of you keeping score at home.

Flacco and the Ravens might have gone to the Super Bowl last year, if not for a dropped pass and a missed kick in the final seconds against the Patriots.

Flacco and his Ravens simply have a little sumthin’ sumthin’ in the playoffs. Maybe they stole it from the Broncos.

The win over Denver was Flacco's best effort yet. He easily outplayed Manning, a week after easily outplaying star rookie and overall No. 1 pick Andrew Luck.

Flacco did not throw an interception and consistently beat the Broncos defense deep down the field – highlighted by the big-armed 70-yard bomb to Jones to tie the game in the final seconds of regulation. His final tally:

  • 18 of 34, 331 yards, 9.7 YPA, 3 TD, 0 INT, 116.2 rating

Flacco has now produced the two most highly rated games of his postseason career in back to back games. He posted a 125.6 rating against the Colts last week.

And he’s got to the AFC title game this year with a team that simply does not belong there: the Ravens were No. 12 in scoring defense, No. 11 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings and in the Top 10 in just four of the 20 Quality Stats we use to size up teams at CHFF Insider.

On top of all that, Baltimore’s special teams this week put Flacco in the offense under two touchdowns of pressure.

Flacco may have been along for the ride in past years. But the Ravens are in the AFC title game this year because of him.

3. The Broncos defense padded its stats all year against weak competition

Denver finished the year No. 1 on the Defensive Hog Index and No. 4 in scoring defense, two normally reliable indicators of Super Bowl potential.

But they had few answers for Joe Flacco’s deep passing game, and at times looked largely incompetent, especially on the Jones 70-yard TD catch near the end of the regulation.

The reality is that the Denver defense was something of a mirage: 5 of 16 games this year – that’s nearly one third of the schedule, for those of you keeping score at home – came against Cleveland (No. 24 scoring O), Oakland (No. 26) and Kansas City (No. 32).

Even if the Broncos had survived their defense might have been in trouble in the AFC title game, whether against Houston or against New England and the No. 3 scoring offense in NFL history.

Both the Texans and Patriots scored 31 points against the Broncos this season, both of them Denver losses.

4. Parity. Schmarity.

The Ravens will visit the winner of the Texans-Patriots game next Sunday in the AFC title tilt. If New England comes up with the win, it will be Baltimore at New England in the AFC title game for the second year in a row.

The Ravens have reached at least the divisional playoffs for five straight season and the AFC title game three times in five years.

The Patriots, who are 9.5-point favorites at home against the Texans Sunday, have a chance to reach the AFC title game for the seventh time in 11 seasons with Tom Brady at quarterback.

If parity is defined by the same teams fighting for conference titles year after year then, yes, Virginia, there is parity in the NFL.

5. Tim Tebow's Broncos 1-1 in the playoffs; Peyton Manning's Broncos 0-1

We say this only because we know it's going to tweak the sh*t out of a bunch of people and we like that. It passes for fun in our sad, sorry lives.

But at the end of the day, Peyton Manning's Broncos advanced no further in the playoffs than Tim Tebow's Broncos. Both were bounced in the divisional round.

The 2011 Broncos won a wildcard game in dramatic fashion to get there: Tebow set an NFL record getting the ball down field (15.05 YPA on 21 throws) as the Broncos beat Pittsburgh and the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense, 29-23, in overtime.

But what did you expect this time around? That's what Manning teams do: they pull the plug on the show early, leaving fans empty.

You don't recruit Robert Plant and expect him to sing Roger Daltrey songs, just like you don't recruit Peyton Manning and expect him to tear up teams in the playoffs.

Manning was certainly an upgrade at the quarterback position over Tebow. The Broncos were a better team. They made the right move in the big picture. We get that.

We're just saying expectations should have been tempered: the Broncos this year pretty much got the total Peyton Manning Experience, and it usually ends with your team going down in flames or choking to death in the playoffs.