If you listen to the national media, the Baltimore Ravens have no shot at winning this week. They are playing a red-hot team with an 11-game winning streak and no discernible weaknesses.
The Denver Broncos have quietly created an elite defense that allows 290.8 total yards a game, second best in the NFL. You can't really run the ball on them and you can't really pass the ball against them. Let's also not forget the fact that they have the advantage of being acclimated to Denver's famous mile-high altitude.
On offense, the Broncos have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time under center. Peyton Manning has put together another MVP season, after winning the award an NFL-record four times. He is clearly a top-five quarterback of all time and any offense led by him is destined to put up points.
Also, for one of the few seasons in his career, Manning has a good running game. When the Broncos dominated the Ravens four weeks ago, Manning only threw for 204 yards. The main reason behind this being the Broncos were up 31-3 early in the fourth quarter and they did not need to pass anymore.
There's good reason why the Ravens are 9.5 point underdogs this week. Going into Mile High Stadium and beating arguably the NFL's best team on a short week is a very tall task.
It is not, however, an impossible one. The Ravens were actually in the Broncos game all the way till the end of the second quarter as the defense had forced the Broncos to four three-and-outs at that point.
Joe Flacco then threw a deflating interception that put the Broncos up 17-0. They weren't coming back from that deficit, not with the way the offense was playing that day.
If the Ravens can change a few things from last time out, we could have a close game on Saturday. And even though the Broncos are probably the better team, it's possible that the Ravens could come out on top.
Here are some of the less talked-about matchups that will help to determine who wins this divisional playoff game.
Knowshon Moreno vs. Dannell Ellerbe and Ray Lewis
If you had to pick one weakness that the Broncos have, it's their run game. Their rushing attack averaged 114.5 rushing yards a game, which is very much a middle-of-the-pack ranking.
The guy getting the most carries for the Broncos now is Knowshon Moreno. Despite playing in only eight games, he ran for 525 yards and four touchdowns this season.
These aren't bad numbers but Moreno is not at all the kind of consistent runner to build a team around. He was drafted early in the 2009 season with the intention of becoming Denver's every-down back. Instead, Moreno was benched in 2011 for Willis McGahee, a guy who the Ravens had tried unsuccessfully to make their starter several years back.
I'm very skeptical that Moreno will ever materialize as a starting NFL running back. It may not matter this week though, with the Ravens run defense being a shell of what it was in past years. They are allowing 122.8 yards a game and are coming off a playoff game where they allowed a backup rookie running back to run for 91 yards against them.
Still, the Ravens run defense has shown some improvement, however minute, in defending the run. They shut down the New York Giants running game and the Cincinnati Bengals running game in back-to-back weeks.
It also helps that Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe are playing in this game. Ellerbe is the Ravens' leading tackler this season and we all know the jolt Lewis's leadership provides on the field.
Hopefully the return of Lewis and Ellerbe can help to slow Moreno down. They can't allow 100-plus rushing yards by him and expect to win the game.
It's also worth noting that Manning has had early playoff exits when his run game disappoints. In 2005, the Indianapolis Colts had 58 total rushing yards and in 2007, they had 44 total yards. Coincidentally, both those season saw the Colts go one-and-done in the playoffs despite earning a first-round bye both years.
Dennis Pitta vs. Mike Adams and Rahim Moore
As mentioned above, the Broncos have a very strong defense. Yet despite this, they have an odd weakness that the Ravens discovered in garbage time during the 34-17 loss.
This weakness is the Broncos' difficulty defending tight ends. They have given up a league-leading 11 touchdowns to tight ends, two of which were scored by Dennis Pitta in the Ravens game.
We could also see Ed Dickson get involved in this tight end attack. Dickson got the first catch of the game last week against the Colts and he had an impressive 24-yard reception. That was his only catch of the game but it was clearly an impressive one.
Pitta was arguably the only offensive player to have a good game the last time the Ravens played the Broncos. The Ravens need to remember that and try to find a way to get him the ball while he's going across the middle of the field.
Carey Williams and Corey Graham vs. Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas
The duo recently dubbed Black and Decker have become one of the best receiving duos in the NFL. Not surprisingly, both receivers thrived under the tutelage of Manning and each put up over 1,000 receiving yards this season.
In the regular season game, Eric Decker did most of the damage against the Ravens. He caught eight passes for 133 yards and one touchdown.
Demaryius Thomas though, was shut out in the game. He only had four catches for 13 yards, the fewest yards he had in any game this season. This was mostly due to the success that Corey Graham had defending him.
Carey Williams was assigned to guard Decker and for the most part, he lost that battle. While Williams did make two deflections that prevented Decker from making huge receptions, he was burned by him on the touchdown catch.
Williams also tied for the team lead in the regular season with four interceptions. If anyone can pick off Manning, it would likely be him or Ed Reed. An interception will go a long way but Williams needs to also defend his receiver well and not allow large gains.
On the other side of the field, Graham needs to keep up the good work defending Thomas. Thomas put together a Pro Bowl season this year and he is arguably Manning's most lethal target. Graham has been a surprise as a starter this year and a good performance here could help to put him in the conversation for a starting job next season.
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