The Baltimore Ravens haven’t beaten Peyton Manning in their last nine tries, a span covering more than 11 years, and will receive their latest opportunity in Saturday’s divisional round meeting with the Denver Broncos.
Embarrassed in their 34-17 home loss to Denver in Week 15, the Ravens are hellbent on showing they’re a much better team than the one shut out in the first half as the offense could generate nothing against the Broncos’ stout defense. However, the Broncos enter the postseason as the AFC’s No. 1 seed and haven’t lost a game since Oct. 7, finishing the regular season on a league-best 11-game winning streak.
Though the stakes aren’t quite as high as the two AFC championship games in which the Ravens have appeared under coach John Harbaugh, they might feel just as much urgency on Saturday knowing 37-year-old linebacker and spiritual leader Ray Lewis will retire after the season. The wave of emotion seemed to work in their favor in last week’s 24-9 wild-card playoff victory over Indianapolis, but traveling to Denver to deal with the bitter cold and altitude is another challenge entirely as the Broncos possess the league’s fourth-ranked offense and second-ranked defense in terms of yardage.
The Ravens lead the all-time regular-season series with Denver by a 5-4 margin and own a win in the only other playoff meeting against the Broncos, a 21-3 final in the franchise’s first postseason game on Dec. 31, 2000. However, the Ravens haven’t won a game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High since 2001, which happens to be the same season in which they last secured a victory over Manning.
Baltimore is 1-3 in four games against the Broncos in Denver.
Here’s what to expect as the 11-6 Ravens attempt to secure their second consecutive AFC championship game appearance with an upset over the Broncos …
1. Ed Reed will secure an interception of Manning in what may be his final game with the Ravens. I incorrectly predicted the 34-year-old free safety would pick off Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, so I’ll go to the well one more time for the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year. The Ravens’ interest in retaining Reed’s services after the season appear lukewarm at best, and there’s no guarantee the chronically-injured defensive player will decide to play in 2013 anyway. Even so, with it being a cold and potentially snowy afternoon in Denver, Reed will capitalize on a rare mistake by Manning to force a takeaway to set the Ravens up on a short field. With dangerous targets Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker providing tough matchups against Baltimore cornerbacks, Reed will need to play his assignments to offer help over the top. Even so, the veteran is notorious for gambling and he knows Manning as well as any quarterback in the league.
2. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Von Miller will collect two sacks for the Broncos while Paul Kruger continues his hot streak with 1 1/2 sacks for the Ravens. The installation of veteran Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and the presence of right guard Marshal Yanda — who was inactive for the Week 15 loss — will help an offensive line that allowed quarterback Joe Flacco to be sacked three times and hit nine times by the Broncos last month. McKinnie will do a respectable job against defensive end Elvis Dumervil, but Miller is an absolute nightmare as he can line up on either edge or stunt from the strong-side linebacker position. Kruger will continue his best season as a professional and collect 1 1/2 sacks after picking up 2 1/2 against Indianapolis last week. The sobering thought is that Kruger is likely pricing himself beyond the Ravens’ budget with his strong finish to the 2012 season. They’ll enjoy his services for at least one more afternoon as he provides the most consistent heat on Manning with the banged-up Terrell Suggs virtually a non-factor these days.
3. Bernard Pierce finishes with more carries and more yards than Ray Rice as the Ravens try to find the edges more than you’d think against a fast Denver defense. The conventional wisdom is to run north and south against the speedy Broncos unit, but the numbers suggest otherwise as Denver has been stout against inside runs and vulnerable when running games have tried to run beyond the edges. The Broncos have allowed 3.76 yards per run behind left guard, 3.23 yards per run behind center, and 2.82 yards per run behind right guard. That last number is interesting with Yanda being the Ravens’ best offensive lineman. In the first meeting between the teams, the Ravens tried to run five plays behind veteran Bobbie Williams at the right guard spot and gained only nine yards. The Broncos have allowed 4.9 yards per carry around the left edge and 5.54 yards per carry to the right end. In terms of the workload for Pierce and Rice, the former’s ability to explode through running lanes and create yards after contact is the more appealing option against the league’s third-ranked run defense, but Rice will receive plenty of touches as well as offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will try to create mismatches for Rice to get the ball in open space as a receiver. Baltimore will exceed the measly 56 rushing yards gained against Denver on Dec. 16, but seeing them run for much more than 100 total would be very surprising. An effective running game would go a long way in keeping Manning off the field, so the Ravens will stick to the run even if only earning modest gains.
4. Flacco will receive better protection this time around, but he will have difficulty finding open receivers as he struggles to crack the 200-yard passing mark. The running game will be critical in determining how much time Flacco receives to throw as the Ravens are likely to use some play-action roll-outs and bootlegs to move the pocket and keep Miller and Dumervil honest in targeting the quarterback behind the offensive line. If Pierce and Rice are unable to gain positive yardage, the Broncos won’t respect the play fakes and the Baltimore quarterback will be unable to evade rushers when trying to throw on the move. Even if Flacco is able to receive more time, the question of whether Baltimore receivers can gain separation against Champ Bailey and Chris Harris remains to be seen. Anquan Boldin was held without a catch and Torrey Smith made one reception for 14 yards before leaving the first Denver game early in the second half with a concussion. Flacco will try to take shots downfield with Smith and Jacoby Jones on the outside, but the Denver secondary has been exceptional all year, averaging a fifth-ranked 6.4 yards allowed per passing attempt. The Ravens will move the chains more effectively than they did in Week 15 — 1-for-12 on third down — but Flacco’s short-to-intermediate passes to tight end Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin will become more difficult over the course of the game unless they can connect on a deep ball or two to back up the secondary.
5. The Ravens will put forth a better showing than they did against Denver last month, but Manning and the Broncos will prove to be too much in a 27-17 final. The notion uttered by many this week that the Ravens have no shot against the Broncos is a silly one and wreaks of not paying attention to what happens around the NFL every week. The Broncos are the better team, but that doesn’t mean Baltimore isn’t capable of pulling off the upset, especially with a big return by Jones or a crucial turnover that goes in their favor. Despite their many critics, the Ravens are a good football team and should be commended for winning 11 games this season after the slew of injuries they suffered, particularly on the defensive side of the football. However, the Broncos are a great team and Manning will be too much to overcome as a Baltimore defense that will bend but not break for the first three quarters will wilt on a late touchdown drive to put this one out of reach. The Baltimore offense won’t be embarrassed like it was at M&T Bank Stadium last month, but the unit just won’t be productive enough against one of the best defensive units in the league. The Ravens’ season and the career of the future Hall of Fame Lewis will come to an end in Denver on Saturday.