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The Denver Broncos will be no lower than the AFC’s No. 4 seed in the NFL playoffs. At this point, it’s looking more and more likely the Broncos will either be the No. 2 seed or the No. 3 seed. A win against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday will go a long way toward securing the No. 2 seed.
The Broncos are riding an eight-game win streak, and if they are to make that nine, Denver will need to do something never done before: win in Baltimore.
And speaking of eight wins, that’s how many games quarterback Peyton Manning has won against the Ravens; he’s 8-2 all-time.
The Ravens have dropped two straight games, their first losing streak in more than three years. A Baltimore win clinches the AFC North title, and a spot in the playoffs. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who targeted the Denver game in his comeback from a triceps injury, will not play. Baltimore is giving the 37-year-old at least another week to heal. The Ravens are 4-3 without their defensive leader.
Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice ranks fifth in the league in net yards from scrimmage. (courtesy Keith Allison)
When Baltimore has the ball: Two words: Ray Rice. The running back is the nucleus of Baltimore’s offense. In last week’s loss to the Washington Redskins, Rice had a season-best 121 rushing yards. He ranks fifth in the league in net yards from scrimmage, and is one of those can’t-have-the-ball-too-much type of players. Make no mistake; Rice will be the key to Baltimore’s success if for no reason other than to control the clock and keep Denver’s offense on the sideline.
It’s believed Cam Cameron, who was fired as offensive coordinator earlier this week by Baltimore, was let go in part because he didn’t utilize Rice as much as he should have. Cameron’s replacement is Jim Caldwell, who coached Manning in Indianapolis.
For a team known primarily for its defense, and well, the Ravens are just that, Baltimore’s offense excels at home. The Ravens average about 34 points a game in Baltimore where they are winners of 23 of their last 25.
Baltimore’s offensive line is big, sturdy, and difficult to outmuscle, allowing Rice to get big gains. The O-line also enables quarterback Joe Flacco ample time to hold onto the ball and look downfield in passing situations. Flacco’s downside, however, is his tendency to fumble, so expect Elvis Dumeril and Von Miller to apply the pressure early and often. Denver’s pass rush has served the Broncos well all season long, and there’s no reason to think that will change come Sunday.
Miller is one sack shy of the team’s record (17) set by teammate Dumervil back in 2009.
When Denver has the ball: Assuming the Broncos have yet another slow start, here’s the good news: Baltimore has blown fourth-quarter leads in back-to-back weeks. Denver has outscored opponents by 71 points in the fourth quarter this season.
In their Week 14 game against the Oakland Raiders, the Broncos offense stalled on multiple drives – drives that ended in Matt Prater field goals. Sure, three points are better than no points, but Denver settled for 12 points when the Broncos could have had 28. Denver needs to do a better job of finishing drives in the end zone…not through the uprights.
Baltimore is tied for 15th in the league with 30 team sacks in 2012. Defensive end Arthur Jones has 4½ sacks in three games, and linebacker Paul Kruger has recorded a sack in five consecutive games. The Ravens will likely apply pressure on Manning, especially in third-down situations deep in Baltimore territory.
Peyton Manning is just 188 yards short of 4,000 yards passing this season. The 4,000-yard milestone will be the 12th of his career, a record in the NFL.
Denver 24, Baltimore 20
This is one of those “something has to the give” games. Under head coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore is 10-1 versus the AFC West, but the red-hot Broncos have the league’s longest active win streak.
I like the Broncos chances of leaving Baltimore victorious for the first time.
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