Considering it’s a divisional playoff game, and the Denver Broncos’ first with Peyton Manning at the helm, it feels like there should be more in-depth storylines to dissect. When I really think about it though, there is a lot to consider, but nothing warranting a thousand words. In that spirit, here are some thoughts, facts, and observations I’m mulling ahead of Saturday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens.
New Day for Denver
Much has been made of this potentially being Ray Lewis’ final NFL game. It would serve as a fitting bookend for Lewis who competed in his first playoff game on New Year’s Eve day in 2000 against the Broncos. The Baltimore Ravens won 21-3 on the way to a Super Bowl victory. Yet, a Denver victory Sunday could also been seen as the closing of a chapter. That game in 2000 was Denver’s first playoff game post-John Elway. Since then, Denver has returned to the playoffs only four other times (twice being knocked out by Peyton Manning). A win Saturday will not only signal what is perhaps the start of a demise for a Ravens defense that has been dominant for the past decade, but also the end of a period that saw the Broncos stay competitive, but just outside the bubble of a perennial playoff contender.
Is Baltimore the Sneaky On-A-Roll Team?
Also known as “Who is this year’s New York Giants?” Wild Card weekend didn’t offer much help in identifying the lower seeded team who could win it all, or even IF there was a lower seeded team who could win it all. Take a look at last weekend’s winners:
- Houston Texans: Lackluster victory over a one-dimensional offensive opponent. Impressive outing for running game against a solid defense. Displayed no indications they would create a matchup problem for a team with an elite quarterback.
- Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks arrived in the playoffs after several weeks of blowing out opponents (and a tight Week-17-so-who-really-cares victory). Not surprised they won. Would hardly characterize Seattle as a team that “eked in and started surprising people.” Too good, and too consistent of a defense.
- Green Bay Packers: Under no one’s radar. Elite quarterback who was the league’s MVP last season. Yeah, not sneaking up on anyone.
- Baltimore Ravens: Inspired victory against a team that should have been about .500 or slightly worse based on point differential. Was the Indianapolis Colts’ defense that porous or has the Ravens offense clicked that much? Is the Ravens’ defense that stout in the red zone, or did the Colts bumble the execution of too many plays? Too many variables to say for sure.
As these things generally go, I would probably pick No. 3 seeded Houston as that Wild Card weekend sleeper contender. If the Texans truly return to a potent run game, the defense and passing game are both still good enough to deliver a tough matchup. The same could also be said for Baltimore, but it just feels like more of a stretch. I could see the Ravens hanging tough, but I could also see a situation where it becomes evident early on that Baltimore is mainly smoke and mirrors. The big names on defense may be back, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if we’re talking Sunday about how it was evident they just weren’t at full strength.
Is Saturday the last call for LB Ray Lewis? (courtesy Keith Allison)
For the Record
Are you like me? Are you getting tired of the “argument” that the Broncos have only won against bad teams? Here’s my big issue with that: Yes, it’s true for the most part, but it’s not like these were close wins. Sure the Broncos may not have compiled an impressive 11-game winning streak had the team been pitted against the NFC West or played in the AFC South.
This isn’t college; coaches can’t schedule light. It’s often luck of the draw.
Before the season began, Denver’s schedule looked daunting. That was before we knew the New Orleans Saints really would be hamstrung by Bountygate, or Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers wouldn’t improve on the past season, or the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs would somehow find a way to get substantially worse.
The Broncos won a lot of games against inferior competition, and won handily. That’s what good teams are supposed to do.
Meanwhile, Baltimore did manage to lose to the Philadelphia Eagles, beat the Chiefs 9-6, and escape a loss to the vaunted Chargers due to a play that had both a personal foul, and would’ve have required Ray Rice to be nearly 6’5″ (it’s trigonometry folks – based on where his knee hit, there is no possible way the ball was extended beyond the line of gain).
You know what would really help out Joe Flacco? Winning this game. He’d be able to say “he” was able to outduel Peyton Manning, and “he” was still worthy of being considered an elite quarterback (not that logically, “he” refers to the Ravens, and more specifically, Ray Rice and the Ravens defense). A win would help Flacco’s case.
A win would also really help secure Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker as an elite receiving tandem. The two have been playing exceedingly well lately after what was at times an inconsistent start to the season. A trip to the AFC Championship should formalize their ascendency as a 1-2 pair that poses a big problem for defensive coordinators.
Salvaging a Season for Rice
Ray Rice has had an underwhelming season…by Ray Rice standards. Two playoff victories should be enough for him to escape questions of whether he should still be considered a big time threat. What isn’t falling in his favor is the Denver defense. Despite several big rushing days (Houston, New England, Kansas City), the Broncos front seven hasn’t allowed many running games to get going. Even the ones that did failed to single-handedly dictate the outcome of a game. If the Broncos make this game a proposition of whether Flacco can engineer enough points through the air this one will be finished well before the final whistle.
The Chris Harris Pick-Six Happened
With this guy on your side, you have to feel good. (courtesy Jeffrey Beall)
Another quick beef…I’m a little irritated by the notion that the first times these teams met, the game would have been totally different if not for Harris’ interception. You know what? It could have been. But you know what? It wasn’t.
The Broncos could have also tallied victories in Atlanta and Houston if not for some unfortunate turnovers. Both the Ravens and Broncos could have won some additional games if they executed better. So could every other team.
Remove just the Harris interception, and the only difference is the Ravens trail 24-10 heading into the fourth quarter, the Broncos don’t fully let off the gas, and the game ends pretty much in the same fashion.
It’s the playoffs. No outcome can be guaranteed, and the price of losing increases dramatically. All this said, the game really will come down to a simple question: Are the Broncos focused enough?
Even if the Ravens “want it more” than Denver, they still can’t match the talent of the Broncos. If Denver consistently fails to execute, it could spell trouble. If the Broncos execute for the most part and turn mistakes into minor hiccups, the Ravens still don’t win this one. If the Broncos play flawlessly, the Ravens not only lose, but lose big. The following weeks may provide a different scenario, but if the Broncos’ season ends Saturday evening it will be because the Broncos managed to end it themselves. My hunch is that’s just not going to happen.
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