This series is meant to give everyone a preview of the four games being played this weekend, some keys to victory for each team, and finally a prediction. I went 4-0 last weekend, but that was much easier. This time around there are no bad teams left and I’ll have to decide how the bye week will affect each game. I’ll break down the games in the order they will be played.
Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos
Kickoff: Saturday, 4:30 ET
Saturday afternoon the AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens (10-6) will travel to Mile High Stadium to take on the AFC West champion Denver Broncos (13-3). This game is a rematch from the week 15 meeting between these same two teams. That time around, the Broncos put a pretty good beating on the Ravens. The final score was 34-17 but that is a bit misleading since the score was 31-3 after the 3rd Quarter.
The Broncos dominated just about every facet of the game. From total yards (350-278), to turnovers (2-0), to time of possession (38:34-21:26) it was all Denver statistically. Just like you would expect in a blowout win. However, I’m going to discuss the things you can’t read from the box score. First off, on their first possession, Baltimore turned the ball over near midfield on a Joe Flacco QB sneak and fumble. On the ensuing drive, Denver was able to take the early lead on a field goal. This cannot happen again if the Ravens expect to win. First of all, Manning and company are too good to give them a shortened field. Second, when the Ravens get chances to keep the ball, extend drives in Denver territory, and get points they must do it.
The next three Baltimore drives were all three-and-outs. Their defense held the Broncos after the first two, but not the third time. Short rest and the Manning led hurry up offense slowed down the Baltimore pass rush and the Broncos scored a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead. The Ravens offense responded terribly, only getting one first down on their next two drives while their defense played great and continued to get them the ball back. Baltimore was still trailing 10-0 when the started with the ball at their own 20 yard line with 2:09 remaining in the first half. Until this point, the Baltimore offense had 35 yards and 1 first down on 6 possessions. They finally were able to combine good pass protection with accurate throws from Joe Flacco to create a first-and-goal from the Denver 4 yard line. They looked poised to make the game 10-7 just before halftime. Then Chris Harris stepped in front of Anquan Boldin, intercepted the pass thrown by Joe Flacco, and returned it 98 yards for a Denver touchdown. The game was essentially over.
So in order to predict this games winner, lets take a look at what has changed. First of all, that game was played in Baltimore, while this one will be played in Denver. This not only swings the favor even more to Denver because of the crowd noise, but remember that it’s named Mile High Stadium for a reason. The air will be much thinner for this game, and Denver’s team is used to it. Personnel wise, Denver has had very little change. There are reports that Willis McGahee, the teams leading rusher who tore his MCL in his right knee on November 18 against San Diego, returned to practice yesterday. I don’t think this will have much impact on this game however. McGahee’s replacement, Knowshon Moreno, has played great in his absence and I do not think McGahee will be ready to play come Saturday. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on though, especially if you’re playing fantasy football.
In Baltimore’s favor is the fact that they have since returned future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis from injury. Although Lewis has aged some, he was quite impressive last weekend against the Indianapolis Colts recording 9 tackles and 4 assists. He also looked well rested and much faster than earlier in the season. 2011 Defensive Player of the Year and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who missed the previous game with a biceps injury, played sparingly in the week 15 matchup between these two teams. When I went back and watched the tape, you could tell he wasn’t healthy at all. He came out numerous times holding his arm, and was almost completely ineffective on the pass rush, his specialty. Last week, although he looked much better against the Colts, I still saw a much less affective pass rusher and all around player. The week 15 game was also Jim Caldwell’s first time calling the plays for an offense after Cam Cameron was fired as the Ravens offensive coordinator the previous week. Expect the Ravens offense to be more comfortable this time around.
The biggest change however, was the complete shuffle of the Ravens offensive line last weekend. The Ravens started Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and moved struggling Michael Oher (yes, the same Michael Oher from the “Blind Side”) over to the right side all while having rookie Kelechi Osemele start at left guard. The result? Much better. The Ravens line allowed one sack and seven quarterback pressures. They were not great, but much much better.
I will finish with one quick note, watch out for the Broncos kickoff and punt returner, Trindon Holliday. He’s explosive and could change the game with a few big returns.
Denver Keys to Victory:
- Protect Peyton Manning. If he has time in the pocket to survey the field and allow his talented wide receivers to get separation he will pick apart a mediocre Ravens secondary.
- STOP RAY RICE. If the Broncos hold Ray Rice under 100 yards rushing, they win. It’s that simple.
- It’s Miller Time. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are two of the best pass rushers in the NFL. If they can disrupt Flacco in the pocket, their defense will have a fun day.
Baltimore Keys to Victory:
- The Blind Side 2. Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher star in this sequel. McKinnie will need to protect Flacco’s blind side against Elvis Dumervil. Meanwhile, Oher will need to stop Wolfe or Miller in order for the Ravens to have an effective running game.
- Since I think the Broncos will attempt to stop Rice at all costs early in the game, I think the Ravens will need to set up the run by establishing the pass first. This means they will need a big game out of either Torrey Smith or Anquon Boldin. I will say the one place I think the Ravens could have a major advantage is with their speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith against the aging cornerback Champ Bailey. If the Ravens can get some big plays with Smith, they will have a good chance to win at the end.
- Win the chess match. Ed Reed lost the first meeting against Peyton Manning, who deceived him numerous times. If Ed Reed and the Ravens secondary can confuse Manning throughout the game and cause a few turnovers, the Ravens will win.
Lucky Guess of the Game:
Von Miller gets 3 sacks.
Look for a much closer game than last time simply because I believe the Ravens are a much better team now than they were just a few weeks ago. Baltimore’s defense is good, but Denver is going to get their points one way or another. For this reason I believe the game will be decided by Baltimore’s offense and their ability to throw the ball effectively. If Baltimore can get the big plays I talked about, then they can get Rice going with less men in the box and have a good chance to win this game. In the end, I think the Broncos are just a little too good.
I don’t like picking scores but I’ll give it a try.
Denver Wins. 31-28