AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos

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Top-seeded Broncos looking for second win in less than a month over Ravens

<p> AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos</p>

Arguably the NFL’s best offensive and defensive players of the past decade will go head-to-head one last time when the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos meet in Saturday’s AFC Divisional playoff game at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS. The Ravens defeated Indianapolis 24-9 in last Sunday’s Wild Card game, allowing linebacker Ray Lewis the chance to celebrate a win in his final home game. All that stands between Lewis and extending his Hall of Fame career by at least one more game are the top-seeded Broncos, who are led by quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is 9-2 in his career against Lewis’ Ravens, including a 2-0 mark in the playoffs, and No. 18 has not lost to them since 2001. The Broncos have won 11 games in a row, including a 34-17 victory over the Ravens in Baltimore on Dec. 16, a game that Lewis missed due to a triceps injury.

When the Baltimore Ravens have the ball:
Baltimore’s offense finished the regular season ranked in the middle of the league in yards gained (352.5 ypg, 16th), but struggled down the stretch. The Ravens lost four of their final five games and averaged less than 320 yards of offense per game in those defeats. However, they turned it around in Sunday’s 24-9 Wild Card win over Indianapolis, piling up 441 yards. The Ravens are at their best when they are able to run the ball effectively, as evidenced by the 172 yards rushing they had against the Colts. Running back Ray Rice is the lead back, but the emergence of rookie Bernard Pierce has made the ground game that much more dangerous. Pierce, the Ravens’ third-round pick out of Temple, has averaged 105 yards rushing over his past three games, including a team-high 123 on just 13 carries (7.9 ypc) against the Colts. As a team, the Ravens averaged around 120 yards rushing per game during the regular season, and not surprisingly, they are 7-2 this season (including last week’s win) when the ground game reaches that mark. With the win over the Colts, quarterback Joe Flacco upped his career postseason record to 6-4, as he is the only starting quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. Flacco threw for a career-high 3,817 yards during the regular season and had 282 yards passing against the Colts. He also had two touchdown passes and no interceptions, but for his career he is just a 54 percent passer in the playoffs with a 10:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an average of less than 182 yards passing per game. Just as he did during the regular season, veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin was Flacco’s favorite target against the Colts, posting a Baltimore playoff-record 145 yards and the game-sealing touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Tight end Dennis Pitta had the other touchdown reception in last Sunday’s win, and the Ravens need more production from vertical threat Torrey Smith (2 rec., 31 yds. vs. Colts) if they want to maximize production from the passing game. The Ravens’ offense could get a boost from return specialist Jacoby Jones, who averaged more than 30 yards per kickoff return during the regular season and had three (two kickoffs, one punt) special teams touchdowns. Two other areas of concerns for the Ravens’ offense have to be turnovers and pass protection. During the regular season, the Ravens finished tied with New England for the fewest turnovers in the AFC with 16, although Rice did lose two fumbles in the win over the Colts. After surrendering 38 sacks in the first 16 games, the Ravens’ offensive line only gave up one to the Colts. A similar, if not better, effort will be needed against Denver, as the Broncos tied for the league lead with 52 quarterback takedowns, including three of Flacco in their win in Baltimore back in December.

If not for Manning’s MVP-worthy performance, Denver’s defense would be this season’s story in the Mile High city. The Broncos finished the regular season second only to Pittsburgh in total defense (290.8 ypg) and third in both rushing (91.1 ypg) and passing (199.6 ypg) defense. The Broncos also were fourth in scoring defense at 18.1 points per game and allowed more than 24 points only three times all season. Those games were the only three the Broncos have lost thus far, as the defense is holding opponents to less than 16 points per game during their current 11-game winning streak. This unit has given up more than 100 yards rushing once during this streak and has yet to allow more than 284 yards passing all season. The latter is even more impressive when you consider this defense has faced three quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan — who finished among the top five in passing yards and touchdown passes. The secondary is led by All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, who earned his 12th Pro Bowl invite this season and had two of the Broncos’ 16 interceptions. However, the front seven certainly can’t be ignored, as fellow Pro Bowlers linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil combined for 29.5 of the Broncos’ league-leading (tied with Rams) 52 sacks. In addition to the sacks, Miller, who is a contender for Defensive Player of the Year honors, forced six fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown. Collectively, the Broncos’ defense scored six touchdowns of its own during the regular season, a pretty good return on the 24 total turnovers the unit produced.

When the Denver Broncos have the ball:
When Peyton Manning made the decision to sign with Denver after severing his ties with Indianapolis, everyone expected the Broncos’ offense to be better. However, I think it’s safe to say no one predicted Manning would pass for the second-most yards and touchdowns in his illustrious career, especially after missing all of 2011 and undergoing four separate surgeries on his neck. That’s just what happened, however, as Manning finished the regular season second only to reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers in passer rating (105.8) with 4,659 yards (sixth in NFL), 37 touchdowns (third) and just 11 interceptions. Whether or not Manning adds to his record four MVP trophies remains to be seen, but No. 18 is without a doubt the biggest reason why the Broncos’ offense ranked second in yards (397.9 per game) and points (30.1). Two other primary beneficiaries of Manning’s presence have been wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who have combined for 179 receptions, 2,498 yards and 23 touchdowns. Veteran Brandon Stokley and tight end Joel Dreessen each have five touchdown catches of their own, as seven different Broncos posted 21 or more receptions during the regular season. Although the statistical production may not show it, the running game also benefited from having No. 18 calling the plays. The Broncos averaged 114.5 yards rushing per game, which placed them only 16th in the league in that category, but the ground attack did produce 12 rushing touchdowns. Running back Willis McGahee was on pace for another 1,100-yard campaign when he tore his MCL and broke his leg in Week 11. McGahee is still the team's leading rusher with 731 yards and it’s possible he could return should the Broncos beat the Ravens and advance to the AFC Championship Game. In the meantime, Knowshon Moreno took over the starting job and has rushed for 510 yards and three scores in his last six games. Manning’s value under center can also be seen in the 21 sacks the Broncos have allowed, the second-fewest in the league. Turnovers have been a bit of an issue, as the Broncos have fumbled the ball away 14 times, although four of those lost fumbles belong to McGahee while Manning has none. Denver also added another weapon during the season in kick returner Trindon Holliday, who has returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown for the Broncos even though he started the season with Houston. Besides his production on special teams, Holliday holds a unique distinction in that he has yet to lose a game this season. He went 5-0 to open the season with the Texans before being released and picked up by Denver prior to the Broncos’ Week 6 game. Coming off a disappointing 31-21 loss in New England the week before, the Broncos came from behind to beat San Diego 35-24 on “Monday Night Football,” went on bye the next week and haven’t lost since, giving Holliday a perfect 16-0 mark on the season to this point.

A top-10 unit in each of the past four seasons, the Baltimore defense took a step backwards this season, finishing the regular season ranked 17th in total defense at 350.9 yards per game. Even though the team stumbled to a 1-4 finish to close out the season, the defense posted its best performances in the final two games. The Giants and the Bengals were each held to less than 190 yards of offense, including a total of 114 yards rushing, when they played the Ravens in Weeks 16 and 17 respectively. The defense was unable to sustain this type of effort one more week, however, as the Colts piled up 419 yards on offense against them last Sunday, including 152 alone on the ground. Of course, Baltimore did hold the visitors to just nine points (on three field goals) on the scoreboard, which is the most important statistic of all. Even though the Ravens gave up a fair amount of yards during the regular season, the defense did do a respectable job of limiting the damage. They finished tied for 12th in the NFL in scoring defense at 21.5 points per game and only gave up 30 or more points four times. Unfortunately, they lost three of those games, including a 34-17 home defeat to the Broncos on Dec. 16. The Ravens’ pass defense, which allowed 228.1 yards per game in the regular season, finished higher in the rankings (17th) compared to their run defense (122.8 ypg, 20th). The defense also surrendered only 15 touchdown passes, which tied for the second-fewest allowed in the NFL, but this unit is well aware of the challenge that lies ahead in facing Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, especially on their home turf. Injuries have had a significant impact on the defense, as both Lewis and defensive end Terrell Suggs missed at least half the regular season and cornerback Lardarius Webb was lost for the year back in Week 6. Lewis and Suggs are both back on the field, which can only help the Ravens, who will need to find a way to get pressure on Manning and force some turnovers in an effort to disrupt the Broncos’ offensive rhythm. The Ravens ended up in the middle of the pack in the regular season in sacks (37) and takeaways (25), but managed to bring down Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck three times and force him into two turnovers (INT, fumble) in last Sunday’s win.

Key Factor:
Baltimore is a playoff-tested team, having won at least one game in each of the past five postseasons, including last Sunday’s Wild Card win over Indianapolis. That said, this is a tough test for the Ravens, who have to go into Denver to play the Broncos, the AFC’s top seed, a team that tied Atlanta for the most wins in the regular season (13) and hasn’t lost since Oct. 7. Then there’s the Peyton Manning factor, as No. 18 has won nine games in a row over the Ravens, including two postseason matchups. As good as Manning has been in his first season in a Broncos’ uniform, this team is anything but one-dimensional, as the defense has also been playing at a high level throughout. This Baltimore team will run through a brick wall for Ray Lewis, their defensive and emotional leader, but the only way I see the Ravens pulling this one out is if they can find a way to turn back the clock a few years and field that vintage defense from their 2006 championship season. And even then, I’m not sure that would be enough because of the strength of Denver’s defense. It has been a remarkable and legendary career for No. 52, but Lewis’ “last ride” comes in Denver. And as one future Hall of Famer says good-bye, the focus will then shift to see if a fellow Canton-bound legend can lead his new team to the Super Bowl just a year after not taking a single snap.

Prediction: Broncos 27, Ravens 17

Related:

AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons

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