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It was less than eight months ago when the Ravens met the Denver Broncos in one of the great contests in NFL playoff history as Baltimore prevailed in a 38-35 double-overtime thriller to advance to the AFC Championship game.
Now, fast-forward to the present as the Ravens return to the scene with a different look than includes 19 new players on the 53-man roster and the Broncos will see former Pro Bowl defensive end Elvis Dumervil wearing purple, creating plenty of intrigue for the NFL’s season-opening game.
It’s time to go on record as the Ravens meet Denver for the 10th time ever in the regular season and own a 5-4 advantage despite a 1-3 regular-season record in Denver. Of course, the Ravens are also 2-0 against the Broncos in postseason play as Denver stewed over its disappointing loss as the No. 1 seed in the AFC throughout the offseason.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens open their season in prime time for the third time in the last four seasons …
1. Much like last January, the Ravens will go vertical early on as Joe Flacco connects with Torrey Smith for a long touchdown in the first half. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell may need to rely more on the running game this season because of the uncertainty at wide receiver and tight end, but a conservative approach isn’t the way to beat Peyton Manning and an explosive Denver passing game. The Broncos will not have Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller due to his six-game suspension, meaning the offensive line should give Flacco plenty of time to throw deep. Some deep shots will also back up the Denver safeties, opening up some intermediate space for tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark and slot receiver Brandon Stokley to work. If Flacco can find success with those throws, it will only create more room in the box to get Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce going in the running game.
2. Daryl Smith will lead the Ravens in tackles in the first game of the post-Ray Lewis era. Dumervil’s signing received the most attention this offseason, but the presence of the 31-year-old Smith has been a welcome addition to an otherwise inexperienced group of inside linebackers that includes Josh Bynes and second-round pick Arthur Brown. For what it’s worth, Smith looked like the Ravens’ best defensive player of the preseason and while you wouldn’t expect that to hold true during the season, he had the reputation for being stout against the run and serving capably in pass coverage in his nine years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The additions of Smith and Brown will hopefully help the pass defense in the middle intermediate portion of the field, which has been a major weakness for several years now. Smith’s quiet demeanor and maturity might be the perfect fit for a guy assuming the position formerly held by the future Hall of Famer Lewis.
3. Manning will keep an improved Ravens defense on the field, causing the unit to wilt in the second half. Baltimore did an admirable job handling the altitude in a single-digit temperature last January, but Thursday’s forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-80s, presenting a different challenge in terms of conditioning. Even with the improvements to their front seven, the Ravens are still fielding a secondary with question marks ranging from the effectiveness of Lardarius Webb coming back from his second ACL surgery in four seasons to the ability of Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo to cover the middle of the field. Pressuring Manning will clearly be critical as it was last January, but the Broncos just have too much firepower to hold them down entirely. It will intriguing to see what kind of a rapport Manning has built with free-agent acquisition Wes Welker at this early stage, but the size of wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside will be a very difficult matchup.
4. Struggling to find open targets in the middle of the field, Flacco tosses a second-half interception to Broncos safety Rahim Moore. The most dynamic change that Caldwell brought to the offense when he assumed Cam Cameron’s coordinator duties last season was the willingness to use the middle of the field in the passing game, but continuing that without Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta in the mix will be the biggest challenge facing Flacco this season. The reality is no one really knows if the combination of Dickson, Stokley, and Clark will be enough to fill the void of two outstanding targets the sixth-year quarterback used in the middle of the field to the point that he could be bold in throwing passes up for grabs. In contrast, Moore has heard the criticism and jokes throughout the offseason about his gaffe of allowing Jones to get behind him on the game-tying score at the end of regulation last January. Trailing late in the game, Flacco will try to force a pass down the seam to Dickson that’s picked off by Moore, which gives the maligned safety a tiny sliver of revenge.
5. The Ravens will compete ferociously, but an incomplete offense will be the deciding factor in handing John Harbaugh the first Week 1 loss of his tenure in a 24-21 final. Baltimore is a good football team, but trying to figure out how good is anyone’s guess with so many question marks offensively and new pieces defensively. It’s a lot to ask that all to come together against such a formidable opponent in the opening game of the season. The Ravens undoubtedly feel motivated to perform well on a national stage as the defending Super Bowl champions who were also forced to open the season on the road, but the Broncos and their fans have thought about this opportunity for the entire offseason and will treat the game like it’s the Super Bowl. Not enough offense and a few too many leaks defensively against an elite opponent will lead to the Ravens coming up a little short. To beat a team like Denver, you’re often faced with a shootout and the Ravens aren’t built for that just yet.