One miracle rally during the divisional playoffs this weekend ended positively for several NFL players with Utah ties, while another ultimately ended in heartbreak.
For Paul Kruger and four other Ravens with Utah ties, Baltimore's 38-35 double-overtime win Saturday over AFC top seed seed Denver moves the team one step closer to a Super Bowl ring. For Bobby Wagner and two other Seahawks with Utah ties, Seattle's 30-28 loss to Atlanta on Sunday brings disappointment at the end of a promising season that finished short of a title.
Of the 15 players with Utah ties on the eight teams that played in the divisional round, eight now remain on the four teams — Baltimore, New England, Atlanta and San Francisco — that will play in next week's AFC and NFC championship games.
The Ravens, featuring four regular contributors with Utah ties, have the best chance of providing someone who competed in the Beehive State make a play on the big stage of the Super Bowl down the road.
For now, though, Baltimore will match up with New England next Sunday at 4:30 p.m. on CBS in the AFC championship game. It will be the second year in a row these two teams have played for the AFC crown.
San Francisco will play at Atlanta at 1 p.m. next Sunday on Fox in the NFC championship game.
In addition to Kruger, a fourth-year pro out of Utah who started at defensive end Saturday for the Ravens, Baltimore also has Haloti Ngata, (NT, Highland High), Dennis Pitta (TE, BYU), Ma’ake Kemoeatu (DE, Utah) and David Reed (WR, Utah) on its 53-man roster.
Kruger played a part in two of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning's three turnovers Saturday, including the final one in overtime. With Kruger in pursuit and putting pressure on the veteran QB, Manning forced a pass that Baltimore's Corey Graham intercepted at the Denver 45-yard line. That led to a Justin Tucker 47-yard field goal to complete the upset win that included Baltimore forcing overtime with a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left in regulation.
Kruger also helped set up another score when he recovered a Manning fumble late in the third quarter. It was just Manning's second lost fumble in his postseason career. Five plays later, Ray Rice scored on a 1-yard run as Baltimore tied the score at 28-28.
Following the game, Kruger tweeted out, "Denver shoulda stuck with Tebow," in reference to the Broncos trading for Manning and trading away Tim Tebow to the Jets last offseason. He later deleted it.
Kruger added three tackles, two QB hurries and a tackle for loss in his second impressive postseason showing in a row. In the Ravens' wild-card win over the Colts, he posted four tackles, two-and-a-half sacks, a forced fumble and a tackle for loss.
Meanwhile, the season came to an end Sunday for three Seahawks players with Utah ties: Utah State's Wagner and Robert Turbin and Weber State offensive lineman Paul McQuistan. Trailing by 20 points heading into the fourth quarter, Seattle rallied to take the lead on a Marshawn Lynch 2-yard run with 31 seconds to play. But Matt Bryant lifted the NFC top-seeded Falcons to the win by hitting a 49-yard field goal with just eight seconds to play.
Wagner, the first-year linebacker who had the most tackles for the Seahawks during the regular season with 140, led Seattle with nine tackles Sunday. He also had a first-quarter interception.
Turbin, the team's backup running back to Lynch, carried the ball four times for 18 yards against Atlanta and added two catches for 37 yards.
He nearly scored twice in the fourth quarter. With Seattle trailing 27-7 and facing a second-and-3 from the Atlanta 6-yard line, Turbin picked up 5 yards to the Atlanta 1. That set up a touchdown run by quarterback Russell Wilson.
On the Seahawks' next drive, Turbin took a 30-yard reception down to the Atlanta 3, setting up a Wilson-to-Zach Miller touchdown pass.
A bright spot to Seattle's disappointing end to the year is the fact that key players like Wagner, Turbin and Wilson were all rookies this season.
Team: Baltimore Ravens
Third-year Ravens tight end Pitta had an up-and-down game against the Broncos, finishing with three catches for a career playoff-high 55 yards. Late in the fourth quarter, he failed to make a catch on a fourth-and-5 play in Denver territory, but his night included making a 24-yard grab on a third-and-13 at the Ravens 3 in overtime that got Baltimore out of a major field position hole.
Up next: A former Utah high schooler who got to the NFL via Eugene, Oregon.
Team: Baltimore Ravens
Ngata, playing in his 12th career playoff game and starting at defensive tackle for the Ravens, had three tackles and a QB hurry on the same day it was announced that he, along with San Diego safety Eric Weddle (Utah), made the Associated Press All-Pro second team.
Team: Baltimore Ravens
Kemoeatu is a former defensive end for the Utes. He started at nose tackle for Baltimore and made three tackles in the win.
Pictured here, Kemoeatu is making one of his three tackles on Denver running back Jacob Hester.
Up next: A former Weber Wildcat that went down against the Hawks.
Team: Seattle Seahawks
McQuistan started at right tackle for the Seahawks against Atlanta. He started every game for Seattle this season.
Up next: The Ute who protects the Volunteer.
Team: Denver Broncos
Denver offensive lineman Zane Beadles started at left guard, and was credited with a tackle, which came after one of Denver's turnovers in the divisional round. He started every game for the Broncos this year.
Up next: The former No. 1 pick that was benched in favor of Colin Kaepernick.
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Smith did not play in the 49ers' 45-31 over Green Bay. Colin Kaepernick, who took over Smith's starting role near midseason, rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 263 yards and two scores.
With his rushing and pashing, Kaepernick broke playoff franchise records set by Joe Montana and Steve Young in the win.
Up next: A former Aggie and a former Highland Ram who played on Sunday but didn't record any stats.
Teams: Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco fullback/defensive tackle Will Tukuafu (East High) and Green Bay cornerback Jarrett Bush (Utah State) played but did not record any stats.
Related: Kruger, Ravens move on while Wagner, Seahawks come up short