The Baltimore Ravens are projected to lose by nine points versus the Denver Broncos, and plenty of predictions are reflecting that. By the Ravens' own count, 32-of-36 leading journalists have picked the Broncos. The predictions have pretty much made themselves at this point.
Or maybe not. Many are ignoring one key fact: The Ravens don't get blown out in the playoffs. Only once under John Harbaugh have the Ravens lost by double-digits in the playoffs, and that was a highly competitive defensive battle.
With that in mind, the Ravens will be sure to make this a close game. Let's take a look at how it will break down.
Both Teams Will Come Out Flat
In a game this important, how could any team come out flat? We'll find out, as I expect both teams to come out struggling, albeit for different reasons.
Teams with first-round byes have struggled to come out strong in recent years. Both the Ravens and the Packers struggled after their first-round byes last year, with the Packers eventually losing. The Broncos should fall into a similar trap.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have struggled after emotional games this season. After an emotional season-opening win against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens lost to the Philadelphia Eagles. After an emotional win over the New England Patriots, the Ravens then nearly fell to the lowly Cleveland Browns. The trend continues.
No win was more emotional for the Ravens this season than their wild-card win last weekend. Expect them to follow that up with a flat performance early in this game.
Both Teams Will Run the Ball Successfully
I expect both teams to want to pass the ball early and get a quick score. However, that won't work with both teams stumbling out of the gate. Eventually, both teams will put the ball on the ground. That's when these teams will start to figure it out on offense.
The Broncos have a big mismatch in run blocking, as they should completely dominate a mediocre Ravens front-seven. The Ravens' biggest weakness is right up the middle, where Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu are complete sieves in run defense. The Broncos will be smart enough to exploit it with a resurgent Knowshon Moreno.
The Ravens, on the other hand, will have a tough time running the football on the Broncos' third-ranked run defense. Still, that is their best chance for success, as Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice have the makings of the NFL's best one-two punch. With Marshal Yanda back in the lineup and Pierce getting more carries, the Ravens should greatly improve on the 56 yards they managed in the first matchup.
Play-Action Passing Will Decide This Game
With both ground-games going strong, a big pass or two could be the difference in this matchup. That is where the Broncos have the game-deciding advantage.
About 65 percent of Manning's passing yardage in the first matchup was off of play-action, as was his only touchdown. That's the Broncos' biggest advantage.
The Ravens won't be able to match that passing success. Joe Flacco has an abysmal 75.1 passer rating in the playoffs, though it is worth noting that he has exceeded a rating of 95 in four of his last five playoff starts.
Against the NFL's third-ranked pass defense, though, Flacco will struggle again.
And that will be the difference in this game. With two rushing attacks poised for success, the better quarterback will win this football game. That's Peyton Manning.
This game will be close, but a big pass or two from Manning will put the Broncos over the edge.
Score: Broncos 24, Ravens 16