Three of the four NFL Divisional Playoff match-ups this weekend are rematches of regular season games that were so one sided that nobody, sans the revenge seeking losers of each game, would clamor to see based on the initial result. Less than a month ago, Denver traveled to Baltimore and opened up a 31-3 lead behind Knowshon Moreno’s 115 yards en route to a 34-17 victory. For the Broncos it was their 9th straight win and also the 9th straight win for Peyton Manning against Baltimore. His mere presence at the helm snapped a 5-game losing streak for Denver in Baltimore and provided further proof that recent Bronco history must receive a separate distinction between pre-Manning and the present. For the Ravens Week 15 this marked the first performance of the Jim Caldwell offense, as Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron in the midst of what would turn out to be a 1-4 stretch to close the regular season.
Both teams arrive at this point, the Divisional round, for the second straight year-albeit under much different circumstances from a season ago. This time last year Denver was riding Tebowmania and an upset of a battered Steelers team in the Wild Card Round. This year Manning is at the helm and the offense has improved from 23rd a season ago to 4th; meanwhile, the defense has made a similar climb from 26th to 2nd. A season ago, Baltimore was the team coming off the bye and would roll into the AFC Championship and land a heartbeat away from a second Super Bowl appearance. Baltimore on the other has seen its defense fall to 17th after a myriad of injuries to Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis (who did not play vs. Denver), and company—its worst ranking since 2002 and only its second time out of the top 10 since 1998. Nonetheless, it was the defense that led the way in a 24-9 Wild Card weekend victory over the Colts to set up a rematch of December 16th—this time in Denver. Baltimore’s road to the Super Bowl in 2000 began with a 21-3 victory over Denver; they will likely need more than history on their side against this Denver team.
The Keys for Baltimore
Joe Flacco needed only 12 completions last week to tally 282 yards and two touchdowns. Baltimore handled the Indianapolis rush extremely well last week and Flacco was sacked only once. Baltimore will need to give Flacco time to use his downfield accuracy. He was able to strike downfield consistently against the Colts, particularly to Anquan Boldin. Boldin was unable to secure a single reception against Champ Bailey and the Denver secondary in the first match-up and will need a performance more reminiscent of last week’s 145 yard effort for the Ravens to find success. The type of protection provided last week was not there for Flacco in the regular season match-up (While sacked only three times he was pressured all day. Boldin and counterpart Torrey Smith combined for just 15 yards between them and their inability to get open compounded things for Flacco. The turning point in that game was when Flacco was pressured into an interception that Chris Harris returned 98 yards. Baltimore fell down too deep in that game to utilize the Bernard Pierce-Ray Rice Combo. The duo rushed for a combined 58 yards in the first meeting. Last week, the tandem rushed for 178 yards—overcoming two Ray Rice fumbles– and will be counted on to take pressure off of Flacco and maintain favorable time of possession. Baltimore will need similar output from the running game minus the fumbles, along with mistake free football from Flacco to pull out the upset.
Fairly healthy for their game against Indianapolis, Baltimore was able to notch 3 sacks and two turnovers with constant pressure on Andrew Luck. The Denver offensive line unit is much more capable than the Colts and yielded only 21 sacks; however, similar pressure will be needed for Baltimore if they are going to force Manning into a rare mistake. In the first match-up—if anything could be taken as a positive—Baltimore’s defense was able to tame Manning for the most part with the exception of a couple of long play action plays that stemmed from Moreno’s effective ground output. The Raven’s can point to Ray Lewis’ 13 tackle performance in his return and the fact that Moreno’s Week 15 performance came in Lewis absence as an indication that they have a true advantage against the Broncos running game. If Baltimore can limit the running game they can limit the play action; in conjunction with a solid pass rush they will then boil things down to their ability to match Denver in man coverage. Last week, despite all the pressure the brought, Baltimore’s secondary did yield 300 yards to Luck. The Raven’s will be counting on their defense to rush the passer similarly to last week and handle Denver in man coverage like they did in the first game. A tall order; but a necessary one if Baltimore is to spring the upset.
The Keys for Denver
Historically, Peyton Manning has had mixed results in the post season against teams he has played (5-6) and defeated in the regular season (2-3). During the regular season meeting with Baltimore he was mostly held in check as Baltimore held him to 204 yards. Incidentally, Knowshon Moreno had his finest performance in what has been mostly a shoddy performance as the starter in Willis McGahee’s absence—his ability to duplicate his 115 yard performance, or even approach it, will be tested with Ray Lewis in the lineup for this match-up. If Moreno comes close it will go a long way toward positioning Denver for a victory. Moreno’s effective running paved the way for an strong play action game that benefited Eric Decker. Decker had 8 catches for 133 yards; however, Demaryius Thomas struggled against Carly Williams and the Baltimore secondary. While Moreno will be counted on to produce on the ground, Thomas will need to step his game up on the outside with a performance more becoming of the 1400 yard receiver he has become. Denver would get a solid boost in the pass game if their line can hold up to Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger in a battle that will pit a top pass protection unit versus a strong pass rush. As stated, Manning has been sacked on 21 times this year and the battle up front has been consistently won by Denver throughout the season.
Denver’s 52 sacks ranked atop in the NFL and they have already experienced the results yielded by Joe Flacco when faced with heavy pressure—a game changing turnover and a completion percentage of 50%. Denver’s will need to continue to get the type of pressure they have gotten in their 11 game winning streak from Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and company. Meanwhile, the secondary will need to continue its strong play–despite featuring a heavy rush and leaving their secondary in man coverage situations no team was as proficient against the pass on third down in the regular season. This trend must hold true for Denver on Saturday. The Broncos compounded Baltimore’s problems by grounding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in Week 15 early and then forcing Flacco into a key mistake that dashed any hope of the Ravens establishing any stability on the ground. Pierce was the more effective back last week, topping over 100 yards while Rice was a mixed bag of big plays and lost fumbles, but Denver’s 3rd ranked rushing attack will need to contain both backs in order to orchestrate a repeat of Week 15.
It is tremendously difficult to locate a distinct advantage that Baltimore has in any key area that can be exploited to foster a victory. The return of Ray Lewis and the defensive momentum garnered against the Colts further tempered by the facts that they were playing an inexperienced Colts team, in Baltimore, which was not yet equipped experience success on the playoff stage. Denver has won 11 in a row…true momentum. Denver certainly yields a talent advantage at running back where Moreno is nowhere near the talent of the Rice/Pierce duo. Nonetheless, their run defense negates even that potential area of strength for Baltimore. It’s hard not to love the game breaking ability of Jacoby Jones and the stellar kicking of Justin Tucker but Baltimore won’t be kicking 7 field goals and returning two kicks for touchdowns.
The stagehands can lower the curtain on Ray Lewis’ career. Denver is better in all aspects and will win going away.
Denver Broncos 31-Baltimore Ravens 17