NFL Baltimore RavensDenver Broncos

Ravens vs. Broncos NFL Playoff Preview

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Game Synopsis

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If the Baltimore Ravens are to keep their playoff run alive, they will have to beat a quarterback who has their number and a team that gave them a wooping less than a month ago.

Overall Peyton Manning has won nine straight games against the Ravens including the playoffs, as the Ravens haven’t beat Manning since Week 12 of the 2001 season. More currently, Manning and the Denver Broncos beat the Ravens 34-17 in Baltimore in a game that was never really that close.

However, the Ravens are coming off a thorough beating of Manning’s former team, the Indianapolis Colts. Joe Flacco bested Manning’s heir, Andrew Luck, as he kept his string of impressive playoff appearances going. Flacco has actually won three playoff games since Manning last won a playoff game, so Flacco actually has the more recent success in the playoffs. Manning hasn’t won a playoff game since 2009, so it will be interesting to see how Manning plays in his first playoff game in some time.

Another big story is Ray Lewis and the potential final game of his career, as he returned last week to lead the Ravens’ defense in tackles. The Ravens’ defense is starting to round into form, as they will need all hands on deck to stop Manning and the Broncos’ potent offense.

There is an area where the Ravens have a marked advantage. The Ravens have actually taken better care of the football, while forcing more turnovers on defense. The Ravens ranked third in the AFC with a plus-9 turnover differential, while the Broncos finished the regular season with a minus-1 turnover differential, so the Ravens will have to keep that trend going if they are to win.

The following slides will thoroughly breakdown the remaining aspects in this match-up, the first of two AFC Divisional round games this weekend.

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Offensive Edge: Broncos

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Manning had a breakout season a year after major neck surgery put his career in question. He was near the top of the leader board in yards, touchdowns and passer rating. The Broncos’ offense finished the season ranked fourth overall in yards and second overall in scoring offense.

Manning’s impact on the offense has been beyond transformational, as this offense was one-dimensional last season with Tim Tebow at the helm. The offense went from being ranked 23rd last season to fourth this season, so Manning has helped to bring more balance to this offense.

Another key role Manning has played is in the progression of his two stud young receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. That twosome has become one of the best receiving duos in the entire NFL, as their skill sets have complemented each other very well. Decker has been the possession-type receiver while Thomas has been the big-play speedster. Either way, the two of them have no limitations as they have become top-10 wideouts in the league.

Further bolstering the Broncos’ passing attack was their pass protection. Manning was sacked only 21 times, which was the second-lowest total in the league. Only Eli Manning was sacked less than big brother Peyton.

The Broncos’ rushing attack hasn’t been near as potent as the passing game, but the running offense still ranks a respectable 16th in the league. Willis McGahee had been carrying the mail in the run game until an injury in Week 11 ended his season. Knowshon Moreno has filled in capably, as he has averaged just over 93 rushing yards per game in his five starts. Moreno has been more shifty than McGahee and has added a nice wrinkle to the Broncos’ powerful offense.

The Ravens meanwhile come off a strong offensive performance against the Colts. Flacco kept his recent string of masterful postseason games in tact as he severely outplayed Luck. Flacco’s passer rating of 125.6 was the highest of any quarterback during the wildcard playoff round, as he now has nine touchdowns and two interceptions in his last three playoff games.

Flacco has made a habit of elevating his play in the playoffs, and will need to keep his play at a high level if he is to hang with Manning and keep the Broncos’ second-rated defense off balance.

Another bright spot for the Ravens’ offense was the rushing attack. The Ravens ran all over the Colts to the tune of 172 yards. Rookie Bernard Pierce stole the show as he led the team with 103 yards. Pierce saw in increase in touches, especially crunch time touches, as Ray Rice had a case of fumbilitis against the Colts. After losing zero fumbles all season, Rice lost two fumbles against the Colts and did not even start the second half.

However, Rice still had 70 yards rushing and 47 receiving so he still contributed aside from his gaffes. The Ravens actually ranked better than Broncos in rushing offense, so they do have and advantage in that area. If the Ravens are to stay close with the Broncos and keep Manning off the field as much as possible, Rice and Pierce will have to have a similar effort as they did against the Colts.

Despite the Ravens’ two-headed rushing attack coming on strong and steady play from Flacco, Manning and the Broncos still hold the advantage in the battle of the offenses. The Broncos own the better regular season offense in both points scored and yards, and Manning has played in two Super Bowls.

Thus with more a more experienced and decorated quarterback and a more well rounded offense, the Broncos hold the edge in this facet of the game.

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Defensive Edge: Broncos

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

With all the talk of the resurgence of Manning and the offense, the Broncos’ defense was a little overshadowed this season.

However, the Broncos’ defense was just as impressive as the offense. The Broncos’ defense ranked second in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed. The Broncos had more Pro Bowlers on the defensive side than the offensive side, as cornerback Champ Bailey, defensive end Elvis Dumervil and outside linebacker Von Miller were all selected.

An area where the Broncos’ defense was dominant was the sacks department. The 52 sacks by the defense ranked tied for first in the NFL. Miller led the defense with 16.5 sacks, while Dumervil had a respectable 11 sacks of his own. Defensive end Derek Wolfe contributed with six sacks, while linebacker Wesley Woodyard chipped in with 5.5 sacks and led the team in tackles. Woodyard would have been second on the Ravens in sacks, so that shows the discrepancy in sacks between the teams.

The Broncos’ defense also had more interceptions during the regular season, so combined with their high sack total, the Broncos created much more havoc than the Ravens in the passing game.

The good news for the Ravens is that they have their defense as fully in tact as it has been since Lewis and Lardarius Webb went down with regular season-ending injuries in a costly Week 6 victory.

Last week against the Colts was the first time Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata played in the same game together. The results were stellar as the Ravens’ defense came up huge in shutting down Luck and the Colts to only nine points.

Linebacker Paul Kruger kept his strong play going as well last week as he registered 2.5 sacks, as he harassed Luck all game. Kruger led the Ravens in sacks this regular season and is the most versatile player on the defense. He will need to be active defensively in order to make Manning uncomfortable.

Another positive factor for the Ravens’ defense will be getting Bernard Pollard back. The hard-hitting safety missed the game with the Broncos back in Week 15, so they will have their menacing safety in the lineup to try to slow down Manning. Pollard is a tackling machine and an intimidating presence for pass catchers.

The Broncos did comfortably beat the Ravens in that match-up on December 16th, but Manning had his lowest passing total in any game this season by a wide margin. Manning’s 204 yards passing was the only time all season he threw for less than 240 yards, so there is hope there. If the Ravens’ defense can hold Manning to a similar stat line while slowing down Moreno and the rushing game, the Ravens will have a shot to upset the Broncos.

The Ravens’ defense will no doubt throw everything they have at Manning in what could be Lewis’ last game. However, the numbers don’t lie, and the Broncos’ younger, more opportunistic defense has the advantage in this contest.

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Special Teams Edge: Ravens

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This is an area where the edge is slight, but the Ravens own the edge in this facet of the game.

The battle of the return men is nearly a wash, but Jacoby Jones must be given the advantage over Trindon Holiday. These two returners were part of an exclusive club this season, as they were two of only five players to return both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown.

Jones gets the nod though because he led the NFL in kickoff return average and was the only player to return two kickoffs for a touchdown. Holidays’ punt return average was a yard better than Jones, but overall Jones was the best return man in the NFL this season and was selected to the Pro Bowl over the likes of Holiday.

The Ravens also hold the advantage in the kicking game. Rookie Justin Tucker converted more field goals and also had a higher conversion rate than Matt Prater. Despite kicking in the kicker-friendly thin air of Denver, Tucker actually had a longer long field goal on the season than the Broncos’ Prater.

Tucker converted his only field goal attempt in his first career playoff game last week, so the rookie kicker is no longer a playoff neophyte. Prater has been a solid kicker during his career and has more experience kicking in the playoffs and in Denver, but Tucker has done nothing to lose faith in him, so he gets the nod in the battle of the kickers.

The punting battle is basically a dead heat, as Baltimore’s Sam Koch and Denver’s Britton Colquitt have had solid seasons. Each punter is totally reliable, as the punting battle will be one of the least-publicized match-ups in this game.

Thus, with a slightly better return man and kicker, the Ravens have the slim edge in the special teams battle.

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Coaching Edge: Ravens

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

This is another area where the advantage is miniscule. Both Denver's John Fox and Baltimore's John Harbaugh have accrued 6-4 records in the postseason over their coaching careers.

I give Harbaugh the edge in that he has his six postseason wins in less than half as many seasons as Fox. It took Fox 11 seasons to get to six postseason wins, while it only took Harbaugh five years. Fox does have a Super Bowl appearance while Harbaugh doesn’t, but that Super Bowl appearance came way back in 2003 with the Carolina Panthers.

Harbaugh meanwhile has set an NFL record, as he has won at least one playoff game in his first five seasons as a head coach. Harbaugh’s regular season record is also far superior to that of Fox. Harbaugh is 54-26 in the regular season, while Fox is only 12 games over .500 in his career despite Denver’s 13-3 record this season.

Again, Fox is a solid coach who has been coaching in the NFL in some capacity since 1989. It would be no surprise if Fox coached in another Super Bowl while in his tenure in Denver. However, Harbaugh has more recent success in the playoffs, as Fox only has one playoff win since 2006. Thus with more recent postseason success and a better overall head coaching record, Harbaugh gets the slight nod over Fox.

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Intangibles Edge: Broncos

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

This is yet another area where the advantage is slim, but there are too many factors to ignore that are in the Broncos’ favor.

First and foremost, Manning has not lost to the Ravens in his last nine games. The last win over Manning came in early December of 2001 for the Ravens, so Ray Lewis is the only current player who has defeated Manning while donning a Ravens’ uniform. Only two of the nine straight victories have come in the playoffs, but the streak over a model franchise is extremely impressive nonetheless.

Another factor in the Broncos’ favor is their all time postseason record at home. The Broncos are 13-3 all time in postseason games played in Denver, and have only lost one postseason home game since the 1997 season.

A final streak in the Broncos’ favor is the 11-game winning streak they are currently on. It took Manning a couple of weeks to knock the rust off, but the Broncos are undefeated since a Week 5 loss to the New England Patriots in Foxborough. The Broncos’ three losses this season came against the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and Patriots, so even their losses came against teams currently alive in the playoffs.

They are the only team in the league with a top-five offense and defense, so they appear to be the most complete team in the NFL.

The Ravens do have their own intangible factor, as it could be Lewis’ final game of his illustrious career. Lewis made a big impact in his return last week, as he led both teams with 13 tackles. Lewis will no doubt have an inspirational speech ready for his team, as he is their leader in every aspect. Lewis’ leadership and ability to rile up the troops is legendary, and he will need to be at the top of his game both on the field and in the locker room if the Ravens are to pull off the upset.

The fact that the Ravens are such huge underdogs can also be used to their advantage, as everyone is already looking forward to another Manning-Tom Brady clash in the AFC title game. If the Ravens can use the underdog factor in their favor, as well as leaving everything on the field in what could be Lewis’ final game, they have a shot to stage the upset.

However, with so many factors in Manning and the Broncos’ favor, they have the edge in the intangibles department. Thus, with the advantage in more aspects of this game, look for the Broncos to advance with a 27-17 victory over Lewis and the Ravens.