In an AFC Divisional showdown, the Denver Broncos, winners of 11 games in a row, host the Baltimore Ravens Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS) in what should be the final game in Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis’ career. I said should be…based on a lot of facts and figures.
Before I get into the analysis of Saturday’s game, allow me one quick word about Lewis and one about the nickname for Baltimore’s team. Out of the University of Miami, he was the second player ever drafted by Baltimore (he was drafted number 26, Jonathan Ogden was drafted number 4 in the 1996 NFL Draft)…just before the team had a name. Ozzie Newsome, picked Lewis, and 17 years later, he certainly made the right decision.
FACTOID THAT YOU PROBABLY DON’T KNOW: In a fan-based vote, the name Ravens won out over the NFL-preferred name Rhinos (seriously) and a local name, Bombers (because Baltimore was where many bombers were built for WWII). There were also two others, but they escape me now.
Now, my analysis: These two teams played in Week 15 in Baltimore (11-6, first in the AFC North), with Denver (13-3, first in the AFC West), winning handily, 34-17. The Broncos led 34-3 before the Ravens scored two meaningless touchdowns to make it look like a competitive game. It wasn’t. But remember, Lewis, the face-of-the-franchise, was not playing that day, recovering from his injured triceps. Bernard Pollard, a quality Ravens safety, was also inactive three weeks ago. So why would I think playing in Denver will result in any other decision. Unfortunately, as a Ravens fan, I don’t. Denver has been the hottest team in the league, winning 11 in a row and improving weekly under the guidance of Peyton Manning.
One problem with their schedule has been the fact that is was weak. They lost three games – the toughest games they played (at Atlanta, home against Houston, and at New England). If there were an NCAA-type committee looking at their schedule, it would look like cupcake city. That’s NOT their fault…but playing Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego twice, the depleted New Orleans Saints, catching the Carolina Panthers when they were really struggling…you get my drift. Yes, they beat a decent Cincinnati team, but, still…
The Broncos are not gloating about anything. “I think it’s going to be a lot harder than when we faced them the first time,” Broncos and former Ravens receiver Brandon Stokley said Sunday night. “They had a lot of injuries, especially defensively. I think a lot of those guys are back now. When they’ve got all their guys, they’ve got a great defense, especially in the red zone. And that’s what hurt Indy.”
Denver is second in the league in scoring (to New England) with 30.1 points per game. The problem for Baltimore, as I see it is the fact that they just gave up 419 yards to Indianapolis, with a rookie (albeit a great one) quarterback running a “conventional” offense. In fact, it was the sixth time this season the formerly-great Ravens D has allowed 400-plus yards. The difference now, is that the Ravens offense can score in many ways.
Denver, to me, has an advantage offensively vs. Baltimore’s defense…Manning and the Broncos run a no-huddle offense…although they only gained 350 yards against Baltimore last time out.
So here you have it…the Ray Lewis-provided inspiration going up against the Peyton Manning-led offense. Denver has lost just one game at home this season, in Week 3 against Houston, before Manning hit his stride. What a challenge lays ahead for the purple-clad visitors.
“I’m really looking forward to [next week's game]” said Baltimore receiver Anquan Boldin, who led the Ravens with five catches for a team-playoff record 145 yards, including a game-sealing, fourth-quarter, 18-yard touchdown grab. “I was hoping we would get them. So, they’ll see us next week.”
And what’s going to be different this time? “We’ll make it different,” Boldin said, before exiting the postgame stage last Sunday.
Last Sunday, the Ravens provided the home-crowd with a promising look at a defense that bent, but did not break, against rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Facing Manning on Saturday will prove to be a bit different.
“In the playoffs, you play great teams,” said the Ravens’ John Harbaugh, after securing a playoff victory for the record fifth year in a row, his first five as an NFL head coach. “I like the fact that our team has been here before. We’ve made this six-day turnaround road trip three other times. This will be our fourth time in five years playing a [playoff] road game on a short week. So we know how to do that.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for [the Broncos]. Denver came in here and played really well against us and beat us pretty good,” the coach continued. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to go play them again.
“You can’t play a 60-minute football game on emotion,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve got to go play football. You’ve got to go play well. To me, you just don’t do that emotionally. Emotion wears out really fast. So, we’ll carry that forward. We’ll still be emotional and enthusiastic, but the fact that we played well, that’s what’s important.
The Ravens’ pass rush was their best weapon against Luck, sending multiple-look blitzes at the rookie. Manning has seen them all. And the Broncos’ offensive line will NOT confuse anyone with Indy’s. They have allowed just 21 sacks this season, second-fewest in the league.
Manning has a stellar 2-0 record against Baltimore in the playoffs, and should be looking forward to matching up with the Ravens once again. The winner gets a date in the Jan. 20 AFC Championship Game. Saturday, it’s Lewis vs. Manning. The greatest linebacker and quarterback of their NFL generation. Squaring off one more time. With the same, old feeling.
Lewis, for one, is looking forward to playing against Manning one last time. “They are always classic,” Lewis said of his career matchups with Manning. “I will tell you that. It’s just one of those chess matches. He knows me very well. I know him very well. I think just for me and him back colliding; [but] at the end of the day, it’s not about me and Peyton. It’s about their team against our team. I just like our team. I love our team right now, and I am really looking forward to going out there and playing them next week.”
Lewis has been called by teammates, coaches and even opponents one of the game’s most effective leaders. The impact of such an emotional leader cannot be overvalued, Broncos coach John Fox said Monday.
“There are people on teams that raise all boats, raise all levels,” Fox said. “They can inspire. He does that.”
Lewis, 37, has lost some speed and sometimes struggles in space, but he recorded a team-best 13 tackles Sunday despite wearing a brace on his right arm.
“This is a game of passion, emotion and enthusiasm,” said Broncos linebacker Keith Brooking, a 15-year veteran. “A lot plays into that. If you’re a team that goes into a game with just that (emotion) and doesn’t run real deep in your preparation and attention to detail, that all fades quickly once toe meets leather.
“But when you’re a player of Ray Lewis’ magnitude, his leadership doesn’t start on game day. His leadership starts throughout the course of the week. That runs deep through their team. They’re a reflection of that.”
The Ravens want to atone for their loss to Denver three weeks ago, and relish the opportunity to do it at Sports Authority Field. “If you’ve ever been in a fight with somebody and they beat you, you want to fight again,” said Baltimore offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, throwing back the shoulders on his 6-foot-8, 354-pound frame to appear as intimidating as humanly possible.
Denver’s players certainly understand the psychology of the underdog team trying to make good on a past poor performance. “Definitely, (the Ravens) have a lot to prove, but we still have a lot to prove,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said Monday. “We know the playoffs are where you make your name. Our goal is to win a Super Bowl, and they’re standing in the way of our goal.”
“Of course they’re going to be amped up this weekend,” Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. “But it’s a playoff game, and everybody’s emotions are going to be running high.”
Asked Monday what he thought the Ravens’ approach would be Saturday against the Broncos’ defense, linebacker Wesley Woodyard said: “Same scheme, same mentality: Try to bully you, try to come in and run the ball right down your throat.”
In that 34-17 beat-down three weeks ago, you have to wonder if there are any emotional scars on the Ravens? “He (Manning) didn’t put his hands on me or nothing like that,” joked Ed Reed, the Baltimore defender with nine Pro Bowl seasons on his résumé and more than a few flecks of gray in his beard.
“We know what we got. (The Broncos) know what we got. We’re going down there with all our weapons and all our tools. And we’re coming to bang.”
Tale of the Tape:
Baltimore strengths: The Ravens’ offense is diverse, with the ability to pound the ball in the running game and throw the ball down the field in the passing game. Rookie Bernard Pierce (103 yards on 13 carries Sunday against the Colts) gained at least 1,300 yards and averaged more than 5 yards per carry in two of his three seasons at Temple. He gives the Ravens a speed-size option in the running game to go with Ray Rice. When veteran QB Joe Flacco gets support from the running game, he’s a tough out. Flacco has thrown for at least 282 yards in seven games this season, all wins. This, plus the Ravens have won playoff games on the road and in cold weather (at New England). It is expected to be 20 degrees in Denver on Saturday.
Baltimore’s weakness: The Ravens’ defense gave up 419 yards to the Colts on Sunday, including 152 rushing. It was the sixth time this season the Ravens allowed at least 400 total yards and the sixth time they allowed at least 160 rushing. Baltimore has struggled to control the line of scrimmage all season, especially when opponents are able to keep star defensive tackle Haloti Ngata away from the action. This, plus the Ravens are playing this game on a short-week (6 days). They will fly into Denver Thursday night to acclimate to the altitude.
Denver’s strengths: Peyton Manning. And a better-than-you-think defense. How the Ravens handle the no-huddle offense should be the tale of the game. If Manning has his way, he will dink-and-dunk down the field. Limiting the Ravens offense playing time will just hurt the Ravens defense. Playing at 5,280 feet at 35 years of age (or older) could also play a huge role. This, plus they are playing on a week’s rest, at home, and are used to playing at the 5,280 foot altitude.
Denver’s weakness: Relatively untested team in the playoffs (under Manning). Yes, I remember last year when Tim Tebow shocked the Pittsburgh Steelers with one pass, but this is a different team. I think they are a better team, but playing an emotional veteran team like the Ravens could be their undoing. This, plus maybe, just maybe, Denver is looking past Baltimore (mistake). I cannot believe this would be the case, because, seriously, Baltimore COULD upset Denver and beat New England (presumed winner Sunday) to atone for last year’s loss.
Key to Denver’s victory: With guard Chris Kuper and offensive tackle Ryan Clady dealing with injuries, protecting quarterback Peyton Manning will be the No. 1 issue the Broncos face (both are expected to play, however). The Ravens blitzed Colts rookie Andrew Luck a lot Sunday, sacking him three times. If the Ravens are convinced Denver’s offensive line is banged up, they will send extra pass rushers after Manning. That’s their best hope of slowing Denver’s offense. In order to have any chance in this game, the Ravens MUST slow Manning down and get him out of the pocket with blitz packages.
Who wins: Denver beats the Ravens, in a closer game than three weeks ago. Call it Denver 23 Baltimore 13.
From our friends at the worldwide leader, ESPN, here are eight notes, nuggets and numbers you need to know heading into the matchup:
●Final Four Repeat
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, all four remaining AFC teams reached the Divisional round last season, the first time ever the same teams were the “Final Four” in a conference in back-to-back seasons.
●Ravens’ Recent Playoff Success
The Ravens have won a playoff game in each of the past five seasons, just the sixth team in NFL history to pull off that feat. In the process Joe Flacco became the first quarterback ever to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons.
●Flacco Likes the Road
Flacco is 4-4 on the road in eight playoff starts. Eli Manning (five) is the only starting quarterback with more road wins in the postseason.
Flacco led all quarterbacks last weekend with a Total QBR of 89.5, nearly double his regular-season QBR of 46.8. That was by far the largest increase in Total QBR of the eight quarterbacks who started last weekend.
●Rookie Running Wild
Bernard Pierce ran for 103 yards last week, the second Ravens rookie with 100 rushing yards in a playoff game. Jamal Lewis did it twice in the 2000 playoffs, the year the Ravens won their only Super Bowl title.
Peyton Manning is making his 12th postseason appearance, tied with Brett Favre for the most in NFL history by a starting quarterback.
●Manning and Broncos Going Streaking
Manning has won nine straight starts against the Ravens, including the playoffs. That’s the second-longest active winning streak by a quarterback over a particular opponent. Coincidentally, Flacco has won 10 straight against the Cleveland Browns, the only active streak longer than Manning’s over the Ravens.
The Broncos have won 11 straight games, the longest active win streak in the NFL and their longest since opening the 1998 season 13-0. They won the Super Bowl that season.
●Home Field Advantage
The Broncos are 13-3 all-time at home in the playoffs, which is tied for the second-best home playoff record (minimum of five games).
Ravens vs. Broncos – Season Result Site
1996 Broncos W, 45-34, Denver
2000 *Ravens W, 21-3, Baltimore
2001 Ravens W, 20-13, Denver
2002 Ravens W, 34-23, Baltimore
2003 Ravens W, 26-6, Baltimore
2005 **Broncos W, 12-10, Denver
2006 Broncos W, 13-3, Denver
2009 Ravens W, 30-7, Baltimore
2010 Ravens W, 31-17, Baltimore
2012 **Broncos W, 34-17, Baltimore
*AFC wild-card playoff game
** Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis did not play because of injury.