The AFC No. 1 seed Denver Broncos (13-3) take on the No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens (10-6) in the divisional round of the playoffs on Saturday. The Broncos are coming off of a bye week while the Ravens are coming to Denver on a short week after beating the Indianapolis Colts 24-9 in the wildcard round. The Broncos’ roster has 36 players who have appeared in a combined total of 140 playoff games. Of those 140 games, 58 have come in the divisional round by 33 different players. The Broncos are 18-16 all-time in the playoffs, and 8-4 all-time in the divisional round (7-2 at home). The last time these two teams met, the Broncos beat the Ravens for the first time in Baltimore 34-17 in week 15 of the 2012 regular season. The Broncos and Ravens have met in the playoffs just once before (Dec. 31, 2000) where the Ravens beat the Broncos 21-3. Kickoff is set for 2:35 p.m. MST on CBS with Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf calling the game.
Broncos: The Broncos may not have the Ravens’ number, but Peyton Manning certainly does. He’s beat the Ravens nine times in a row, and he’s put up an average of 25 points against them. The Ravens’ defense played a lot last Sunday (87 plays), and they have to travel to a mile above sea level on a short week. If this doesn’t call for a high-speed, no huddle offense, I don’t know what does. The Broncos could benefit from the Patriots-type of run and gun offense that had the Broncos on their heels. Chris Kuper could return to the offensive line which would be huge against an aggressive Ravens team. Kuper missed nine games, and of the 21 sacks that the Broncos gave up this season, Kuper was not in on offense on 19 of those sacks. Eric Decker went off on the Ravens last go-around with 133 yards and a touchdown, but Demaryius Thomas was limited to 4 catches for 13 yards. Getting both big receivers involved early on will crush the Ravens’ defense.
Ravens: The Broncos sacked Joe Flacco three times in week 15, but where the Ravens really struggled was on third down. They went 1-for-12 there, and got so far behind by halftime that all they could do was throw the ball in the second half. The team is used to Jim Caldwell calling the plays now, and they rearranged their line to make the run game more effective. Matt Brik is in at center still, but Michael Oher moved from left tackle to right tackle, Bryant McKinnie is now in at left tackle, and Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda are in at guard. The move helped the Ravens rush for 172 yards against the Colts, including 103 yards on 13 carries from Bernard Price. Anquan Boldin was completely shut down by Champ Bailey and Chris Harris in the previous meeting so look for Flacco to get him more involved.
Broncos: The Broncos have had trouble against tight ends all season including Dennis Pitta who had 125 receiving yards and two late touchdowns in week 15. With the Broncos’ intense pass rush, the quickest and easiest pass for an offense to make is to a tight end. The team’s linebackers and safeties have to be completely aware of Pitta as well as Ray Rice coming out of the back field on screen passes. The Broncos have been most effective with the pass rush in the fourth quarter this season because they have teams playing from so far behind that they can be as aggressive as they want to be. The Ravens are one spot ahead of the Broncos for number of pass plays that have gone 20 or more yards. Sure tackling and good safety help can buffer that issue.
Ravens: Head coach John Harbaugh reportedly knows where Manning is going to go with the ball. Cornerback Chykie Brown is going to be one of Manning’s main targets, particularly on routes with more than one cut. Expect some safety help in Brown’s direction which will leave one of the Broncos’ big receivers open down the field. Of course, the big story is Ray Lewis’ return to the defense. The Broncos didn’t see him in week 15, but he played in all 87 plays last week after sitting out for most of the season. His freshness could be a big question mark. Even though the Ravens’ defense isn’t on the same level as the Broncos’, statistically speaking, they only gave up one more touchdown than the Broncos during the regular season.
Broncos: Special teams can make or break a Super Bowl contender. Look no further than the Baltimore Ravens (missed FG) and the San Francisco 49ers (fumbled return) last season. Matt Prater has to boot the ball out of bounds on every kickoff. Jacoby Jones averaged 28.0 yards on four kick returns with a long of 50 in week 15. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and one punt for a touchdown this season.
Ravens: Jones is the Ravens’ greatest asset on special teams. Last week he ran a kickoff 37 yards and a punt 34 yards. Kicker Justin Tucker went 30-for-33 on field goals this season with all of his misses coming from 40-49 yards out.
Broncos: John Fox did an excellent job of managing the bye week. He kept his players in town, but gave them enough time to rest their bodies as well. Last Thursday, the Broncos’ first team offense and first team defense squared off in a competitive practice. On other days, he simply required a team lift to get players in the building and to maintain focus.
Ravens: Harbuagh and his coaching staff elected to arrive in Denver as late as possible (Thursday evening) with the thinking that a late arrival will combat some of the effects of the altitude.
Prediction: Broncos – 28 Ravens- 17