After seemingly easily beating the Ravens in Week 15, this should be another easy game for Denver, right? Not so fast, says coach John Fox.
"Forget about rest, forget about seeds, forget about who you played, when, where," Fox told DenverBroncos.com on Monday. "It’s going to be who plays the best this Saturday night, or Saturday afternoon.”
When Denver defeated Baltimore in 2012, the offense scored just three offensive touchdowns and was forced to punt eight times. Scoring 21 points is not atrocious, but it won't blow away anyone in the postseason.
To better prepare for Baltimore's defense—which will have star linebacker Ray Lewis back this time around—the Broncos' offense has been practicing against their No. 1 defense this week.
Throughout the regular season, Denver's offense has practiced against their No. 2 defense, as is normal across the NFL. Players told ESPN's Josina Anderson (@JoinsaAnderson on Twitter) that the offense has been practicing against the starting defense during their bye and throughout the week, per Anderson's report on ESPN on Tuesday afternoon.
Anderson added that quarterback Peyton Manning has made sure every player properly prepares for this week's game, noting that the offense can improve on their Week 15 performance.
Four weeks ago, the Ravens were missing four major parts of their defense, listed below:
This week, three-of-the-four defenders that missed the regular season match are expected to play in the divisional game, with the only exception being Jameel McClain (spinal contusion), who was placed on injured reserve on December 17.
In the play above, the Broncos are preparing to run one of their favorite plays, a quick screen to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas—the same play that went for 70-plus yards and a score in the season-opener.
As the play developed, the Ravens' defense does not instantly read screen. Once the defense does read the play, they are fast to react.
The cornerback pounces on the screen and the Ravens' defense begins swarming to the ball.
By the time Thomas is ready to take the ball upfield, the quickly reacting cornerback has Demaryius under wraps and eight of the Ravens' 11 starters are closing in fast.
On the next play, Baltimore's defense held the Broncos to a five-yard gain on 3rd-and-7. Denver had to settle for a field goal and Baltimore's defense won a small battle.
On Saturday, letting the Ravens' defense—now once again led by Lewis—win battles will give Baltimore momentum, and that's not something Peyton wants to happen.
"I know they have some guys back that did not play in the first game, which, certainly, I think they’ve gotten healthy at the right time, which is what you want to do in the playoffs," Manning told DenverBroncos.com on Tuesday. "And they had some guys, Lewis and (Dannell) Ellerbe and (Bernard) Pollard that did not play (in Week 15). That’s a fact."
The Broncos' offense scored three touchdowns against the Ravens defense in the regular season. Last week in the Wild Card Round, Baltimore held the Colts to just three field goals. Having three major defensive contributors back, the Ravens' defense will be an even tougher opponent this time around.
"There’s no question those guys make a difference for their team and it made a difference for their team on Sunday, holding the opponent to zero touchdowns. It’s an excellent defense. Really, no matter who is in there, my opinion that certainly when they have all their guys back, they’re extremely tough."
To make sure the offense does not lose more battles this weekend, the Broncos' offense is taking Baltimore seriously and practicing against their No. 2-ranked defense in the NFL.
Forget streaks, forget revenge, forget what happened last time around.
"It will come down to who executes the best," concluded coach Fox.