Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
Game Day: Sunday 1:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Line: Broncos -9 ½
Series Record: Denver leads 10-3 (1-0 this season)
Up to the point of Denver’s bye week, Week 7 of the NFL season, questions still remained on whether Peyton Manning could rebound from his 2011 neck injuries and lead a team back to the playoffs and beyond. The Bronco’s were 3-3 at the bye. Typically, past Manning-led team did not know what .500 football looked like.
Little did the league know that the week before the bye, a 35-24 Denver win at San Diego, stood as commencement of an 11-game stretch in which the Broncos would not lose a game. It now stands to say that Manning, while not the same quarterback he was before, is still Peyton-Freaking-Manning.
In Week 15, the Broncos’ provided perhaps a foreshadowing of this week’s matchup, when they throttled the Baltimore Ravens to the tune of 34-17. Manning was not at his finest in that game. But, the contest was another piece of proof that the veteran quarterback possessed a weapon he’d rarely held in seasons past: a dynamic defense. And, Manning with a top-flight defense behind him has long been viewed as a recipe for domination.
That same contest came in the middle of a nosedive for the Ravens, as they lost four of five to end the season. Injuries to an aging defense, and an offense that at times seemed to lose its identity, left fans wondering if this would be the Ravens’ first one-and-done playoff experience since Joe Flacco became the quarterback five seasons ago.
Then, Baltimore went into playoff mode. Last week’s emotional thumping of the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round gave retiring linebacker Ray Lewis at least one more week of glory. The Ravens started slow while forcing the Colts to never actually get started. In the end, Baltimore seemed to gather enough momentum to make this week’s matchup with the Broncos an exciting one.
Broncos Game Plan
Don’t expect too many surprises from the hottest team in the league this week. The offense will attempt to dictate the tempo and will spend the early part of the first quarter feeling out the defense. Adjustments will be made after one or two series, and the Broncos will look to score quickly and often in the first half. Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will get plenty of attention from both Manning and the Ravens’ secondary, while Bronco running back Knowshon Moreno will see a heavier than normal workload in the absence of Willis McGahee, who is out with a knee injury.
First down will be pivotal for the Denver defense in the early going. Stopping the run to set up second-and-long will lead to the Ravens’ attempting more passes, which falls right into the hands of the Broncos’ strength. While Denver ranked third in both run and pass defense, the team separates itself as an elite group of quarterback harassers, which may cause Flacco to become rattled and make an early mistake or two. In fact, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil may be the two most important people on the field not named Manning. If they can keep they can keep the Baltimore defense in check, Manning will have an opportunity to make this game a blowout.
Ravens Game Plan
The inverse of Denver’s defensive game plan, the Ravens most get Ray Rice going early. Gaining five-plus yards on first down will go a long way in comforting Joe Flacco as he dissects Defensive Coodinator Jack Del Rio’s schemes. Further, Rice will need to fight and win on third-and-short to keep possession away from Manning and the Broncos.
Flacco will need another great performance from receiver Anquan Boldin to keep up with the Broncos. Boldin will be hassled by Denver’s secondary all game long, but he has to find a way to make one or two long catches (like last week) in order to move the Bronco defense off of the line of scrimmage. With even a slight amount of extra time in the pocket, Flacco can make some things happen to change the momentum of the game. While Boldin does not have to put up another 145-yard mark, he will need to catch more than the 5 balls he gathered last week.
Most importantly, ball security will also be at a premium. Rice lost an uncharacteristic two fumbles last week against the Colts. This simply cannot happen against the Broncos. He must protect the ball at all costs, or he will likely be responsible for Ray Lewis’s last call.
Flacco has not thrown an interception since that regular season matchup with the Broncos. While he may be afforded one pick in the right scenario in this game, he should not think that way. Denver will attack him in a lot of different ways, so he will need to read quickly and make a decision. In fact, a low completion percentage in this game may be seen as a positive, as he will likely throw a number of balls away to prevent sacks and interceptions.
While the Ravens proved last week that the regular season means almost nothing when it’s do-or-die time, they still did so against a defense far inferior to the one they will face this week. Denver comes into the game with just one obvious weakness: the run game. However, pass-happy quarterbacks like Manning really only need a warm body in the back field to give him and the receivers a rest in most games. This game will likely be one of those.
Baltimore does not seem to have enough offensive weapons to counter the Broncos defense. And the defense, while improved toward the end of the season, is still not the typically dominant unit fans expect from this team.
The Ravens may keep this one closer than expected, but the Broncos should have no problem advancing to a potential Manning-Brady matchup in the AFC Championship game, if the Patriots prevail in their contest with Houston.