Rocky Mountain High
Not long after the Baltimore Ravens had beaten Indianapolis last Sunday, in Ray Lewis’ final game in Baltimore, my first reaction was, now what?
How do you follow that 24-9 win, in which everything went about as well as can be. Lewis’ last pregame dance was goosebump inducing for a Raven fan, knowing that this was the last time we’ll ever get to see that. It was as close to a tearjerker moment as a football game can get.
And then came the game, as the Ravens defense turned in a vintage performance, holding the fort down for a half until Anquan Boldin pulled one of his patented “Just throw me the damn ball” takeovers of a game. Q does this about three times a season, and he picked a good time to have one.
Lewis himself played well for a 37-year old man who hadn’t played in 12 weeks, other than that dropped interception in the first half.
Paul Kruger played the game of his life and Bernard Pierce kept on racking up 100 yard games as a backup.
The only negative from the Indy win was the mystifying play of star running back Ray Rice, who fumbled twice, a very odd thing because Rice hardly ever fumbles.
And as the game wound down, John Harbaugh made the occasion even sweeter by inserting Lewis into the game as the safety in the victory formation for one last dance and a Ripken-esque lap around the field. It was a strange game in the sense that Indianapolis hardly seemed to be there, supporting players in someone else’s movie, at least until Reggie Wayne (who Russell Street Report gave the appropriate moniker Reggie Whine) tried to pee on the moment by calling it "disrespectful." Sorry Reggie, it wasn't, and would you please get over Ed Reed accidentally killing your snake back at the U?
After vanquishing one long-time nemesis in Indy, the Ravens now move on to play another: Peyton Manning.
Manning has been a thorn in the Ravens side for a long, long time, having won nine straight against Baltimore, including a 34-17 victory at M&T in Week 14. Manning has had many different ways of doing in the Ravens: sometimes he just comes out and blows us away (like in 2007), sometimes he struggles for a half and then lights us up (like this year and in 2005) and sometimes he struggles and does just enough to win (like in the 2006 playoff game).
On paper, the Ravens don’t match up well with this Broncos team. Besides Manning’s mastery of the Ravens, there’s also Denver’s run game, which gouged the Ravens in that earlier game. If the Broncos can run, the Ravens are in big trouble because the play-action fake will be at Manning’s disposal. The Bronco defense was also particularly stingy in that Week 14 game, turning the game with a 98-yard pick-6. The Broncos were so dominant in that game, particularly on defense, that they made the Ravens look helpless at times.
So what’s different this time?
Well, for one, the Ravens are healthy. A litany of star players missed that earlier game including Lewis, safety Bernard Pollard, Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, among others. At that time, the Ravens were a team in chaos, on a losing streak, having fired their offensive coordinator as the week began. Since that time, the Ravens have gotten healthier and have played better offensively.
Everybody and their brother is picking the Broncos to win this game (notable exceptions are Grantland’s Bill Simmons and Fox’s Pete Schrager).
I myself was looking for a reason to hate the Broncos, and that was readily provided by the Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla, who channeled his inner Dan Shaughnessy and wrote a dismissive, arrogant column on how badly the Broncos were going to beat up the Ravens. The Ravens didn’t need bulletin board material, getting revenge for being waxed in your own building should be motivation enough, but Kiszla gave some. Now I’m hoping the Ravens beat that arrogance right out of them.
How can the Ravens win this game? There are some ways:
- The weather
Peyton Manning has never won a playoff game where the temperature was below 40 degrees (0-3). The temperature in Denver by kickoff Saturday? A balmy 20 degrees. Granted, only three cold weather games is a small sample size, but two of the worst playoff games of Manning’s career (2003 & 2004 vs New England) took place in cold weather. Having spent the majority of his career in a dome, who knows how Manning will play in the elements? On the other hand, Joe Flacco has had plenty of experience in the cold, at least enough experience to not be intimidated by the elements.
- A different Ravens team
Besides a healthier defense, the Broncos defense will be going against an entirely reconstructed Ravens offensive line. With Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, Kelechi Osemele at left guard (a position he’s better suited to than right tackle), Matt Birk at center, Marshal Yanda at right guard and Michael Oher at right tackle, the Ravens line is totally different than the one the Broncos saw in Week 14. Only Birk was in the same spot in that earlier game. Personally, I think this version of the line is the best run-blocking group the Ravens have and they will have to be able to run in the elements. I still don’t like the idea of Oher, who has been borderline awful all year, going against Broncos sackmaster Von Miller, but I think the Ravens will get better push from the middle with Osemele at guard instead of Jah Reid.
- They can’t play any worse offensively
The Ravens o-line will be the key to this game. They were an absolute sieve in that Week 14 game. There’s no way they could play any worse. If they can get Rice and Pierce going and can protect Flacco well enough to allow Joe to hit some deep throws, the Ravens offense will be much better.
But really, there’s no way anyone on the Ravens offense can play worse than they did in Week 14. Flacco had two costly giveaways, in what was one of the worst games I’ve ever seen him play. The run game was a nonfactor. Jim Caldwell had just taken over the playcalling, so there was bound to be an adjustment.
If the Ravens offense can be just 50 percent better this time, they have a chance to win.
- Get heat on Manning
Kruger lived in the Indianapolis backfield last Sunday. He'll need to do it again Saturday. A Terrell Suggs sighting would be very helpful as well. Manning is difficult to sack, partly because he's elusive in the pocket and because his o-line is very good (only 21 sacks given up). The Ravens don't necessarily have to sack Manning every time as much as they need to pressure him consistently, like they did with Andrew Luck. Like a great baseball hitter, Manning's game is timing. Defending him well involves disrupting that timing. If Manning has time in the pocket, he will carve up a banged up secondary. But if the Ravens can make him uncomfortable, Manning can be forced into mistakes.
- Take advantage of the gifts
If the Broncos turn the ball over, it is imperative the Ravens score touchdowns. Field goals won’t cut it against Manning. If the Broncos want to pass out gifts, thank them for it by putting it in the endzone.
- Special teams
The most consistent unit on this team was special teams, and this game seems ripe for Jacoby Jones to make a big play. He needs to pick his spots better when running kickoffs out of the endzone, but the Broncos will have to account for him. Jones has game-breaking ability. Justin Tucker might be able to hit one from 60 yards in the high altitude.
If Flacco is terrible again, the Ravens have no chance. He’s got to play within himself, not make mistakes and hit a couple of big shots down the field. If Joe Flacco wants that big contract and to be thought of as a great quarterback, start by winning this game..
- Peyton’s playoff history
Despite his Hall of Fame resume, Manning’s playoff career is less than sterling. He’s 9-10 overall, with four of those wins coming in Indianapolis’s Super Bowl season. He’s lost his first playoff game seven times. Yes, Manning has owned the Ravens over the years, but hey,that streak’s gotta end someday right? Might as well be Saturday.