Two of the best teams in the AFC face off Sunday, in a rematch of the 2013 NFL opener that saw the Broncos score seemingly at will in a 49-27 victory. Both teams have gone through significant evolution since then, but both also remain Super Bowl contenders and this game could very well have an impact on playoff positioning down the line.
New Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak, who was the Ravens' offensive coordinator last season, will be looking to protect Peyton Manning by re-dedicating to the ground game, a similar tactic the Broncos used to win two Super Bowls in John Elway's final two seasons. Manning's body might no longer be what it once was, but his mind is sharp as ever and that still makes him a potent player. The Broncos' young offensive line will be a critical area of focus in protecting Manning and keeping him healthy this season.
The Ravens blew two 14-point leads in the AFC Divisional Round to the Patriots last season and many are picking them as a Super Bowl favorite this season. The Ravens aren't afraid of any team out there, beating both Manning's Broncos and Tom Brady's Patriots on the road in the playoffs the last few seasons. New offensive coordinator Marc Trestman takes over for Kubiak but with Torrey Smith's departure and rookie Breshad Perriman already ruled out because of a knee injury, Joe Flacco will have to rely on 36-year-old Steve Smith and journeyman Kamar Aiken as his top two targets.
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Broncos -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Protecting Manning
The Broncos are starting a rookie at left tackle and a second-year player at center. New addition Evan Mathis was brought it to settle the line, but protecting Manning is about more than when he drops back to pass. The key to the Broncos now will be getting the running game going with Kubiak's tried-and-true zone-running scheme. If C.J. Anderson can find running lanes against Baltimore's physical front, it will set the table for Manning. Not only will down-and-distance be more manageable and help Manning avoid the long throws when he doesn't quite have the same zip he used to, but it will also put the Ravens' pass rush on their heels a bit.
2. Denver's Defensive Front Seven
The Broncos feature one of the best front sevens in all of football and with Von Miller entering a contract year it's a safe bet he's due for a monster season. The Ravens' offensive line is no slouch either, so these battles in the trenches will likely be where the game is decided. If the Broncos' defense plays up to its talent level this unit could single handedly take this game over, but it will start with stopping the run.
3. Ravens' Ground Game
With departures and injuries limiting the Ravens' options at wide receiver it puts even more focus on their ground game. We know how potent Denver's pass rush can be, so the Ravens must be able to run the ball to get their offense rolling. Justin Forsett had a breakout season in 2014 with 1,266 yards rushing and he must pick up right where he left off. If the Ravens can put together sustained drives powered by moving the ball on the ground, it will keep the clock running and Manning off the field. It also will force less defenders in coverage, making it a bit easier for Baltimore's receivers to get open.
Denver didn't lose a game at home last season until the playoff clunker against the Colts, but there's little reason to think the Broncos will repeat that kind of performance again in Week 1. First games are generally sloppy, but the Broncos are simply the more healthy and more talented team at this point. For the Ravens to have a chance they must exploit the youth on Denver's offensive line and make Manning uncomfortable early and often. Kubiak has inside knowledge of the Ravens and will have a good plan to attack them. Whether or not Baltimore can move the ball on the ground could be what decides the game.