On the surface, the AFC Divisional Playoff game (Sat. 4:30 PM ET) between the Baltimore Ravens (11-6) and the Denver Broncos (13-3) at Invesco Field appears to be a (horse)shoe-in for the franchise formally known as the Orange Crush. And with the way the Broncos defense has been playing this season, it may not be long before they once again reclaim their famous nickname of the 1970s. Just as long as they keep those awful jerseys of the era in permanent storage.
Although somewhat overshadowed by the prolific performance of superstar QB Peyton Manning, the rejuvenated Denver defense has been a major contributing factor to the team’s eleven consecutive victories, after a slow start to the season. The reincarnated Orange Crush ranks first in the AFC in points allowed (289) and second in total defense (290.8 YPG) in the NFL.
The key performers for the new OC include outside LB Von Miller (18.5 sacks-3rd in NFL) and DE Elvis Dumervil (11 sacks). Another player the Ravens offense will have to keep an eye on is outside LB Wesley Woodyard, who ranks 24th in the NFL with 117 combined tackles.
On the offensive side of the ball, comeback player of the year and MVP candidate Manning (105.8 passer rating-2nd NFL) has piloted the Broncos to a #4 rating in total offense (379.9 YPG). Manning’s primary targets this season have been WR Demaryius Thomas and WR Eric Decker. The two together have accounted for almost 2,500 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns.
While the Broncos are coming into the playoffs crushing their opponents, the Baltimore Ravens limped into their postseason game last week against the Indianapolis Colts, having lost four out of their last five in the regular season. The end of season skid included a 34-17 loss in Week 15 at home against the Broncos.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco (87.7 passer rating) leads an adequate, albeit unspectacular, offense which ranked 10th in the league in points scored (24.9) and 16th in total yards per game (352.5). RB Ray Rice was 11th in the league with 1,143 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. If Baltimore’s running game fails to control the ball, run the clock and keep Manning off of the field, the Ravens could be in for a very long day.
WR Anquan Boldin (65Rec-921Yds-4TDs), who had a superb game last week in the 24-9 victory over the Colts, will pretty much have to duplicate his effort against the Broncos to give the Ravens a chance. There is little margin for error for Baltimore, as they will have to play an almost mistake-free game.
One of few advantages the Ravens may have is in the inspiration department with LB Ray Lewis playing his last season. The usually dominant Baltimore defense ranked 17th in the league in 2012 giving up 350.9 yards per game. The entire unit will have to step up their game if they hope to contain the potent Broncos offense.
The weather may also play into the hands of the Ravens, as the forecast calls for a brisk 20 degree day with little chance of precipitation and light winds. Manning, who aside from this season, has played his career within the confines of a comfortable domed stadium, is 0-3 in the playoffs in games below 40 degrees.
With Baltimore being +9 and Denver being -1 in takeaways/giveaways, winning the turnover war is vital for the Ravens. In the kicking game, Baltimore also has a distinct edge, connecting on 90.9% of the field goals, compared to the Broncos 81.3%.
Manning, the revitalized Orange Crush defense and Denver’s home field advantage and conditioning in the thin mile high air will be a bit too much for Baltimore to overcome. The Ravens may manage to keep it close early, but the Broncos should pull away and put the game away in the second half, giving Manning his first playoff victory in cold weather. Broncos 27 Ravens 13
Twitter @Harris Dole