The Denver Broncos host the Baltimore Ravens this Saturday in an AFC divisional round match up that may, or may not, live up to its billing. The last time these two teams met was nearly a month ago when the Broncos took advantage of a banged up Baltimore team that just fired its offensive coordinator and was not running on all cylinders. Playing on the road, the Broncos were able to waltz into M&T Bank Stadium and manhandle the Ravens to the tune of 34-17.
This time, however, the Ravens come in a healthy team that has their key players in place and an offensive coordinator in Jim Caldwell that not only is more comfortable in his role, but has Joe Flacco playing better than earlier in the year. The Ravens will have LB’s Ray Lewis and Danelle Ellerbe, as well as S Bernard Pollard for Saturday, while riding the emotion of finding out that Lewis will retire after the playoffs.
The Broncos will likely welcome back G Chris Kuper, as well as PR Trindon Holliday, and their best offensive lineman T Ryan Clady, who missed practice time to an undisclosed illness. So as both teams get healthy, it may be obvious that this will be a different game than we saw the last time, or will we?
Quarterback Peyton Manning has had one of his best seasons ever, while meshing with two of the NFL‘s best young receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. While Manning posted pedestrian numbers the first go around against the Ravens defense, this time, you will be able to hear a pin drop in Denver when he has the ball, and Baltimore will not be able to get a jump on the line as they could at home, taking away their initial burst. Advantage: Manning.
The key here will be if the Ravens can stop the gains up the middle as Manning tries to shred the aging Baltimore defense within the numbers, creating space for the occasional big yard gain on a deep post by Thomas. With Manning running the no-huddle with relative ease, it may be safe to say that the home-field advantage will be tremendous when it comes to calling plays, as opposed to Joe Flacco battling the raucous crowd.
The Broncos secondary also features two shut down corners, as the Ravens found out last time while trying to test Chris Harris and Champ Bailey, when Anquan Bolden and Torrey Smith accounted for only one catch. Flacco then had to utilize TE Dennis Pitta, who the Broncos seemingly could not stop late in the game. But those were yards that Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio was all too happy to give as Pitta caught two balls in the fourth quarter for over 90 yards and 2TDs. The Broncos were already up 31-3 at that time, and letting up on the attack. Flacco has seemed to steady with Caldwell at the helm, but his issue will be more with his receivers not finding open space, and the pocket collapsing around him from the league’s best pass rush in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil and the rest of the Broncos front seven.
Another key to both teams this Saturday will be the play of the special teams units. The Broncos’ Holliday has had some late season fumbling issues, and if he coughs one up against the swarming Ravens players, then that could turn into a momentum changer. Also look to see if K Matt Prater keeps with his recent good luck, or if he reverts to earlier season trouble.
The Ravens Jacoby Jones is an explosive return man that can give them good field position at any time, and K Justin Tucker has been nearly spot on in recent weeks, and also has four field goals over 50 yards on the year. Either special teams unit could turn into the x factor in a game where the altitude could help either kicker in a high pressure situation from a longer than usual spot.
The Broncos are clearly the better team, and Denver, come playoff time, is always a difficult place to play for opponents. It would be foolish to discount the Ravens, however, especially with the fierce competitiveness of a Ray Lewis-led defense, but the Broncos are the most balanced team in the NFL, and on Saturday, they will come out and show it.
Broncos 42 Ravens 16
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