OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s no secret that quarterback Joe Flacco can’t do it by himself if the Ravens are to pull off the upset against the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos in Saturday’s divisional round playoff at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Better pass protection, a more productive running game, and a stronger defensive effort in the second half against quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver offense are just a sampling of the goals the Ravens must accomplish to fare any better than they did in the humbling 34-17 defeat suffered at M&T Bank Stadium last month. But if Baltimore is to have any chance of advancing to the AFC championship game for the second consecutive year, the fifth-year quarterback must play like he did in last year’s conference-deciding game when he outperformed New England’s Tom Brady and was a Lee Evans catch away from sending the Ravens to their first Super Bowl since Jan. 2001.
All other factors aside, the ball will rest in Flacco’s hands at some critical juncture — if the Ravens are fortunate enough to play well in other phases of the game — and he will be counted upon to make a game-changing play.
Flacco did just that in the regular-season loss to Denver, but it was arguably the lowest moment of his career when tossing an interception to Broncos cornerback Chris Harris that was returned 98 yards for a touchdown to create a 17-0 deficit instead of a one-possession game at halftime on Dec. 16. The crucial turnover was Flacco’s second of the afternoon and finished a stretch of three straight games in which the quarterback had lost a fumble and thrown an interception.
The sight of him lying face down on the turf after trying to chase Harris the length of the field threatened to be the defining moment of the season for both him and the Ravens as they suffered their third consecutive loss that afternoon.
“Stuff like that happens sometimes, and believe me, I’m the last guy that wants it to happen,” Flacco said. “But you’ve got to go out there and keep your head up and play the game, and I think I did a great job of rebounding from that, and I think our whole team did. That’s why we are where we are right now.”
Flacco hasn’t thrown another interception since then, a span covering 92 attempts. He threw for 591 yards and four touchdowns in wins over the New York Giants and the Indianapolis Colts, the two real games the Ravens have played that sandwiched a cameo appearance by starters in the regular-season finale. Baltimore scored a combined 57 points in those victories and posted a combined 974 yards of offense, albeit against two defenses that hardly stack up to the Broncos’ formidable unit.
For the most part, the offense has looked more productive and crisp since new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell’s debut against Denver. The Ravens have shown a more consistent commitment to run the ball and have effectively moved the pocket, using play-action roll-outs and even the occasional bootleg to allow Flacco to throw the ball on the run.
Of course, the Ravens must run the ball effectively to make such calls feasible against the second-ranked Denver defense that includes the best pass-rushing duo in the league in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. The Broncos teed off on Flacco in their first meeting, hitting him nine times and collecting three sacks. Even the threat of moving Flacco around will make it more difficult for the Denver pass rush to find the same success on Saturday.
“It’s helped us because of the fact we should be able to move the pocket some, particularly with some of the elite pass rushers that we have been facing,” Caldwell said. “If they know your launch point, it’s going to be in the same spot all the time. That can make things a little rough for you.”
Trying to win a shootout against the second-highest scoring offense in the league would be a near-impossible task, so the Ravens must move the chains on third down to sustain drives and keep Manning off the field as much as possible. Baltimore went 0-for-9 on third down against Denver in the regular-season meeting before finally converting for the first time late in the third quarter when the Broncos had already built a 31-3 lead. The Ravens finished that ugly game going 1-for-12 in that department.
In limiting the Ravens to 41 rushing yards on 14 carries in the first half, Denver forced Flacco into third-and-long situations throughout the first half when the game was still undecided. Efficiency will be key in not just creating third-and-manageable chances but also in needing to score touchdowns when the Ravens are able to move the ball inside the red zone. Kicking field goals rarely gets the job done against quarterbacks and offenses the caliber of Manning and Denver.