The end of the Broncos' dream season was as numbing and brutal as the minus-2 wind chill at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

"I just can't believe this," said 14-year-old fan Robbie Jenson, who was sitting in the South Stands. "I thought we were going to the Super Bowl."

Not this time. Not this team.

The heavily favored Broncos lost 38-35 in the second overtime Saturday evening when Baltimore's Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yard field goal through the frigid night air, capping a stunning turnaround after Denver appeared to have the game won until the final minute of regulation.

Many fans expressed not simply disappointment, but anger at how the Broncos performed with so much at stake.

"I think this is like a Greek tragedy," Denver resident Andre said on KOA 850-AM's "Gridiron Grill." "My friends and I were talking about this, and I guess I'm the pessimist of the group, but I feel like (the Broncos) went into this game overconfident. Did that hinder us from winning today? This is terrible for us."

Geoff Lydon, who said he paid $250 for his ticket, was visibly upset afterward. "I think the team played scared, I think they were too conservative with their play calling," he said. "Maybe we just weren't as good as we thought we were."

The Broncos entered the AFC divisional playoff game riding an 11-game winning streak. They were the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs. They had home-field advantage throughout.

But it's the Ravens who advance to the conference championship game to play the winner of Sunday's New England-Houston divisional contest.

For Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, his magical comeback season ended with a gigantic mistake. Toward the end of the first overtime, with the Broncos driving, he rolled to his right and threw an off-target pass back across the middle toward Brandon Stokley. The misfire was intercepted by the Ravens' Corey Graham, setting up the game-winning score.

Broncos fans cheer on their defense Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. More photos.
Broncos fans cheer on their defense Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. More photos. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

"That was a bad throw, one I would like to have back," Manning said. "It's very disappointing just because of how much work we have put in. We really have put in a lot of time and effort this year."

Said Stokley, the 36-year-old veteran who might have played his final game: "This is painful. We had opportunities all game long to finish this thing out. We just didn't get the job done. That's really the bottom line."

The double-overtime loss will go down as one of the most painful, if not the most painful, in Broncos history. Worse, quite possibly, than the 30-27 home loss to upstart Jacksonville 16 years ago in the 1996 AFC divisional playoffs.

"This is worse, way worse," said Alfred Williams, a member of the 1996 team who now is a sports talk-show host for radio station 104.3 The Fan. "The Broncos had so many chances to put this game away."

The play that will live in infamy came with less than a minute to go in regulation. Facing a desperate third-and-3 play from his 30-yard line, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco scrambled in the pocket and threw a deep lob downfield. Unbelievably, Jacoby Jones had gotten behind Broncos safety Rahim Moore for a 70-yard touchdown to tie the game with 31 seconds left, sending it into overtime. Moore badly misjudged the flight of the ball.

"If I had only made that play, we would be rejoicing," a teary-eyed Moore said. "I let the team down, plain and simple. I just let the ball get over my head. I lost the flight of it."

Miles, the Broncos mascot, surfs the crowd during the first quarter of Denver’s game against Baltimore on Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile
Miles, the Broncos mascot, surfs the crowd during the first quarter of Denver's game against Baltimore on Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

Flacco, who threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns and outplayed Manning, knew he had made the play of a lifetime.

"You have to get a little bit lucky, and it worked out," Flacco said. "I just ran a couple of yards and I was thinking, 'Man, I should have just thrown the ball away because the clock at least would have stopped.' But we kept going, and all of a sudden that happened. There is no real way to explain it. The opportunity arose, and guys made plays."

The game opened with a temperature of 13 degrees and light snow. The paid attendance was 76,732, and there were just 129 no-shows. By the time the fans departed in silence, the temperature had dipped to 9 degrees, with a wind chill well below zero.

"The fans were amazing today, amazing, but we just didn't execute like we should have," defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. "This is so disappointing. It's just brutal. I don't know what else to say."

Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, 34, will probably end up in the Hall of Fame, but he still hasn't been to the Super Bowl. Saturday, he was burned for two touchdowns by Baltimore speedster Torrey Smith.

"It gets tougher the older you get because you never know when that door is going to close," Bailey said. "I just have to keep grinding. That's the way I'm built."

Second-year linebacker Von Miller, a candidate for AFC defensive player of the year, sat in front of his locker, with his head in his hands before he finally looked up and took questions.

"It took us all season to get to this point," he said. "To walk away from it on that note, ... I can't even put it into words. It is devastating."

As the temperature continued to plummet, Gwen Krueger of Lakewood, a season ticket-holder for 47 years, stood dejectedly as fans poured out of the stadium in disbelief.

"We're just devastated," she said. "The defense did not play up to their abilities. Everyone knows Flacco throws the long ball. This reminds me of when Jacksonville beat us in the playoffs in 1996."

She wondered whether the bye week was the problem.

"Everyone thought we would go to the Super Bowl," she said, before walking away.

Patrick Saunders: 303-954-1428, psaunders@denverpost.com or twitter.com/psaundersdp