OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have heard the doubts since the first hours following their wild-card playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night.
The Broncos demolished them in a 34-17 final at M&T Bank Stadium less than four weeks ago, the worst home loss of the John Harbaugh era. The score really wasn’t even that close as Denver seemingly took its foot off the gas pedal after building a 31-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
Denver has a league-best 11-game winning streak and hasn’t lost a game since the Orioles were still playing postseason baseball in early October. Baltimore has been installed as a nine-point underdog by oddsmakers in Las Vegas.
How can the Ravens possibly expect a different result this time around as they travel to Sports Authority Field at Mile High on a short week to take on the mighty Broncos coming off a bye week?
The image of quarterback Joe Flacco throwing an interception returned 98 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Chris Harris right before halftime is just too much to shake, isn’t it?
“It doesn’t surprise me that nobody would really give us too much of a shot,” Flacco said. “They beat us up pretty good a couple weeks ago. I think you always have that little chip that you want to go out there and prove to people that you’re a good football team.”
The Ravens believe they are a better football team now than the one on display that day at M&T Bank Stadium as they were only six days removed from firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoting quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. Five key starters were missing from the lineup due to injury. And what could have been a one-possession game going into halftime — with the Ravens set to receive the opening kickoff of the second half — was dramatically transformed into a 17-0 deficit that broke the spirit of what was an inspired defensive effort against Peyton Manning in the first half.
So, as the rest of the country focuses on the deficiencies that were on full display in that embarrassing loss, the Ravens instead look ahead at Saturday’s opportunity while acknowledging how one play can dramatically change the tone — and outcome — of a football game.
“Everybody has an opinion. Whatever that opinion is, let them have it,” said linebacker Ray Lewis, who reminded reporters that the 2000 Ravens were underdogs through much of their run to Super Bowl XXXV. “One thing about it, the game has to be played. No matter what anybody says or who they feel is going to win, you have to play the game on [Saturday]. That’s the way we feel — let the game play out. Because at the end of the day, some people are going to be right and some people are going to be wrong.”
There’s no way to sugarcoat that the Ravens are the clear underdog in this one as the Broncos have dominated on both sides of the ball — ranked fourth in total offense and second in total defense during the regular season — over the last three months to enter the postseason as the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The Denver defense is led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, who formed the best pass-rushing duo in the league with a combined 29 1/2 sacks this season. The Broncos battered Flacco to the tune of three sacks and nine quarterback hits in that first meeting.
Manning has played at an MVP-caliber level in throwing for 4,695 yards and 37 touchdowns this season, and wide receiver Eric Decker torched the Ravens with 133 receiving yards in that Week 15 win. The Ravens haven’t beaten a Manning-led team in 11 years as the future Hall of Fame quarterback has gotten the best of them over and over.
But a Baltimore defense without Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, and Bernard Pollard held the Broncos to 10 points in the first 29 minutes of play on Dec. 16, three coming after a Flacco fumble on the Ravens’ first drive to set up Denver at midfield. It was only after the backbreaking interception on a quick out intended for Anquan Boldin that an undermanned defense completely wilted in the second half.
Flacco and the rest of the offense know they must perform at a much higher level to give the Ravens any chance to pull off the upset in Denver. In Caldwell’s debut as offensive coordinator, Baltimore had a fumble, five three-and-outs, and an interception over its first seven drives.
Recently, the starting offense has looked much better in scoring 57 points in games against New York and Indianapolis that sandwiched the regular-season finale in Cincinnati that was a glorified preseason game. The Ravens also may have finally settled on their best offensive line this past Sunday with veteran Bryant McKinnie finally being inserted at left tackle with Michael Oher moving to the right side and rookie Kelechi Osemele shifting inside to left guard.