The Denver Broncos are rested, ready, and about as healthy as they’ve been all season.
Fresh off a playoff bye, the Broncos begin their quest for a February “vacation” in New Orleans with a rematch against the Baltimore Ravens, a team Denver comfortably defeated four weeks ago. This time around, the oddsmakers in Las Vegas list Denver at 9.5-point favorites.
Even so, we all know the adage of “any given Sunday” – or in this case, Saturday – and that is especially true for favored AFC teams in the playoffs. From 1990 to 2011, nine AFC No. 1 seeds lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. During that same period, only two one seeds from the AFC won the Super Bowl. Luckily, one of those teams was the 1998 Denver Broncos.
I’m not suggesting the Broncos are ripe for an upset, but it’s not unrealistic either. (For the record, if there is a “vulnerable” No. 1 seed, direct your attention to the Atlanta Falcons, who host the rolling Seattle Seahawks this weekend.)
The 2012 Denver Broncos are winners of 11 straight games, and finished the regular season ranked fourth in total offense and second in total defense; the Houston Texans were the league’s only other team to finish in the top 10 in both categories. The Broncos are a better team than the Ravens, something we saw demonstrated during the teams’ Week 15 showdown, but being better is no guarantee of victory.
If the Denver Broncos play Saturday like the Denver Broncos we’ve seen throughout the season, this team will play another week – another week in front of the hometown fans at Sports Authority Field.
But what could be the difference maker that sways the pendulum in Baltimore’s favor? Here are two possibilities:
Turnovers – This is the ongoing conflict for Denver. How can one of the league’s best teams struggle with turnovers week after week? Denver enters the game with a turnover ratio of minus-1. Only two other teams, the Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings, made the playoffs with a negative differential, and each lost during Wild Card Weekend.
On the upside, the Broncos’ lone turnover-free game this season was against the Ravens, and it’s the stat that helped Denver win so convincingly. If the Ravens are to pull off the upset, I see one of the following two scenarios:
- The Ravens finish the game with a turnover margin of plus-2 or better.
- The Ravens finish the game with a turnover margin of plus-1 AND score either a defensive or special teams touchdown.
Close Game Tested? – Not only did the Broncos end the regular season with an 11-game win streak, the closest margin of victory was seven points, and some of those wins included “garbage time” touchdowns by the opponents, making the final scores look closer than the games really were. We have to go all the way back to September for a Broncos game decided by fewer than seven points – and those were each six-point losses to the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans. Denver’s final loss of the season, a Week 5 loss at New England, was a ten-point game.
What we haven’t seen this season is how Denver would react in a truly close game, and by that, I mean back-and-forth games, not the feverish comebacks we saw come up short. The Ravens, meanwhile, have played ten games decided by seven points or less, winning six. How would the Broncos respond if the Ravens tied the game with 1:30 remaining? Took the lead?
Denver 28, Baltimore 17
The Ravens have hopes of knocking out the conference’s top seed, and extending Ray Lewis’ career another week, but I don’t see the Broncos giving in. Denver is simply too dominant in all three phases of the game to bow out early. The Broncos are arguably the most balanced team in football, and balanced teams aren’t usually the teams that get upset.
After two early losses against the Ravens in his career, quarterback Peyton Manning has won nine straight against Baltimore
Come Saturday make that ten.