ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The intended target for Peyton Manning's last pass of the season didn't sleep much after the game that brought Denver's run to the Super Bowl to an unexpected halt.
"I kept playing it back in my head," Brandon Stokley said Sunday, as he discussed the loss in a rapidly clearing locker room. "It's like a bad dream that keeps playing over and over."
But yes, that really happened.
The 38-35 loss to the Baltimore Ravens goes down as one of the most crushing defeats in Broncos history, as much for when it came — two games short of the Super Bowl — as the surreal way it came about.
Though Manning's interception in overtime and Rahim Moore's broken coverage stand out as lowlights from the loss, this was a game filled with mistakes, questionable decisions by both coach and quarterback and more missed opportunities than the Broncos compiled in 11 games before that, all wins.
It brought a sudden close to a season that, at times, seemed almost destined to end at the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
Instead, the Broncos became the ninth top-seeded team to lose in the divisional round over the past eight years.
As the players packed their belongings in plastic trash bags, signed a few jerseys for each other and said goodbye, both young and old had grasped two simple facts of life in the NFL: Teams change from year to year; and one good season does not guarantee another.
"You'll never have the same nucleus, the same group of guys that we have," second-year linebacker Von Miller said. "I wasn't ready to let it go yet. Especially the way it ended."
Moore, who blew the coverage that allowed Jacoby Jones to score the tying touchdown with 31 seconds left in regulation, scooted in and out of the locker room quickly and didn't do interviews.
Manning, whose three turnovers led to 17 points, including the game-winning field goal in the second overtime, didn't make himself available either.
On Saturday after the loss, he acknowledged the throw across his body, back to the middle of the field to Stokley, was a bad decision punctuated by bad execution.
"We really have put a lot of hard work into this season and made a lot of strides and accomplished a lot," Manning said in the postgame interview. "So, it definitely stings, ending on a loss like we had tonight."
Manning fell to 9-11 for his career in playoff games, matching Brett Favre for most postseason losses in NFL history. He had a near-career year, throwing for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns, both second best in his 14 healthy seasons.
Until the playoff game, he looked as steady and consistent as he has since he entered the league in 1998. His steadily improving health figures to get better, as well. But he's 36, and at that age, there are no guarantees.
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