As the Divisional round play kicks off on Saturday, we’ll get going with the first of three rematches from the regular season as the Baltimore Ravens head to the Mile High City to take on the Broncos. Denver destroyed Baltimore in the week 15 of the regular season 34-17 and in reality the game wasn’t even that close since it was 31-3 at the end of the third quarter.
Some of the same things that happened week 15 could easily happen again this week. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense got off to a sluggish start just like they did last week against the Colts. In the first half, Anquan Boldin was held without a catch and Ray Rice continued his playoff struggles with fumbles by coughing up the ball inside the Colts 15-yard line.
Rice’s struggles don’t bode well for the Ravens who will need to keep Peyton Manning on the sidelines. Rice ran for only 38 yards in their first meeting against a Broncos defense that finished third in the league in least rushing yards allowed. Rice ended up losing two fumbles last week against Indy after losing none all year long. He’s fumbled in each of the last four years playoff runs for Baltimore and the Ravens can’t afford another turnover from the normally sure-handed rusher this week. The Broncos will look to shut Rice down again and force Joe Flacco to take to the air to beat them.
Flacco ended up with a nice line last week of 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns but most of that damage was in the second half. When the two teams met the first time, Flacco also had a pair of touchdowns late and finished with 254 yards and a interception as well. The Broncos pass defense finished fourth in the league allowing under 200 yards per game and led the league with 3.2 sacks per game. If they can eliminate the run and get pressure on Flacco, the Broncos could completely shut down the Ravens. They had three sacks in their first game and only allowed three points in the first three quarters. I think we’ll see more of the same this week as the Broncos younger, play-making defense takes the mantle from the Ravens more well-known stars passing off the scene.
The biggest name leaving the Ravens defense is Ray Lewis who will retire whenever the Ravens are eliminated. He played an impressive game last week despite dropping a sure interception. This week Ray-Ray and his defensive unit will have to take on Peyton Manning who threw for a modest 204 yards and a touchdown in their first meeting when Lewis was out with his arm injury.
The reason why Manning didn’t have to go off in Baltimore was that the Broncos got a pick-6 early and were able to rely on their effective running game to put the game away. Knowshon Moreno ran for 115 carries and a touchdown while Jacob Hester added one of his two touchdowns on the year. The Broncos will look to Moreno, Hester, and rookie Ronnie Hillman to carry the load for another week at least as lead-back Willis McGahee continues to target the AFC Championship for his return date from IR.
The Broncos will represent a major challenge for the Ravens secondary with their two dynamic wide receivers. Demaryius Thomas didn’t have a great game when they faced off last time, but has emerged as a great option for Manning throughout the season. If the coverage focuses too much on Thomas though, Mannin will look to Erik Decker who had 133 yards in week 15 against Baltimore. Denver also utilizes Brandon Stokely as a third receiver and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. Manning will exploit any opening based on coverage and has had a storybook return to his pre-injury form this season in Denver.
Manning and the Broncos should be able to get the win at home as they welcome the Ravens. The Ravens have started slow offensively which could come back to haunt them as they play catch-up on the scoreboard and have to abandon Ray Rice and the running game. Expect Bernard Pierce and Dennis Pitta to have decent numbers, but the Ravens to fall short against a tough Denver defense.
The spread on this one is a whopping 9.5 points, but I think the Broncos will be able to cover that number at home after the way they dominated in Baltimore. The Ravens are just 2-4 in their last six games against the spread while Denver has covered in each of the last four and seven of their last 10 including the Baltimore game.
The Ravens could get the win if they get to Manning early and often forcing turnovers and relying on Pierce and Rice to carry the day, but their performance last week against Indianapolis and in week 15 against Denver doesn’t inspire confidence that they can make that happen. I’ll take the Broncos and give the points.