The wait is finally over.
On Thursday night, the Baltimore Ravens travel to face the Denver Broncos in the first game of the 2013 NFL season. It's a rematch of the most exciting game of last year's playoffs, a double-overtime affair that helped propel the Ravens on to Super Bowl XLVII.
A marquee matchup between last year's NFL champions and one of the leading contenders for that title this year is bound to have no shortage of subplots.
In a game that's sure to be worth the price of admission (especially since it's on free TV), here's a look at some of the biggest storylines as another exciting NFL season gets underway.
Baltimore Ravens Major Storyline No. 1: The Makeover on Defense
It's almost unheard of for a team coming off a Super Bowl win to effectively blow up the defense that helped get them there. That's what happened in Baltimore this offseason.
Granted, it wasn't all the Ravens' doing.
Linebacker Ray Lewis retired. Linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe left in free agency. They were joined in the exodus from Baltimore by safeties Ed Reed (signed with Houston) and Bernard Pollard (released).
With that said, general manager Ozzie Newsome did a masterful job of filling those holes.
Elvis Dumervil more than replaces the pass rush lost by the departure of Kruger. Linebacker Daryl Smith is an underrated veteran whom Newsome got ridiculously cheap. Rookies Arthur Brown and Matt Elam, while not starting yet, are talented youngsters who could be impact players for years.
The Baltimore defense will also get a boost from the return of a healthy Terrell Suggs. Suggs, who won the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, was a shell of his usual self after returning from an Achilles injury last year. A Suggs/Dumervil duo gives the Ravens a formidable pair of edge rushers.
It isn't going to take long for us to find out just how stout this retooled defense is. As tests go, it doesn't get a whole lot more difficult that facing Peyton Manning on the road.
Talk about a rough first day of school.
Baltimore Ravens Major Storyline No. 2: Run, Ray! Run!
The Ravens' losses on defense may have been larger in quantity, but impact-wise, the biggest loss for Baltimore had to be wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was traded to the San Francisco 49ers.
Boldin was Baltimore's leading receiver last year and Joe Flacco's primary intermediate target. His loss was magnified when tight end Dennis Pitta went down with a potentially season-ending hip injury.
There's a great deal of uncertainty swirling around the Ravens passing attack right now. That only places more pressure on star running back Ray Rice to be the fulcrum for Baltimore's offense.
Jim Corbett of USA Today reports that Rice is embracing his role as a team leader. In the team's last practice before leaving for the Mile High City, Rice practiced in the No. 52 jersey Ray Lewis made famous in an effort to fire up his teammates.
How Rice fares against Denver will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game. Establishing the run with Rice and Bernard Pierce not only sets up the play action, but it also keeps the ball out of Manning's hands.
It won't be easy. The Broncos ranked third in the NFL in run defense in 2012, allowing just over 91 yards per game.
Baltimore Ravens Most Important Matchup: Corey Graham vs. Denver Wide Receivers
He doesn't get a whole lot of publicity, but the player of the game in last year's postseason win over the Broncos may well have been cornerback Corey Graham. Graham logged a pair of interceptions in the game, with one going for a touchdown while the other set up the game-winning field goal.
Graham's importance to the Ravens hasn't been lost on head coach John Harbaugh, according to Ryan Mink of the team's official website.
Sometimes, you look at this guy, and he does everything so well, you almost go without noticing him. To me, that’s a great compliment, especially for a defensive back. He’s just out there doing his job every day and doing it really well.
Graham will have to do his job really well Thursday. With Lardarius Webb working his way back into shape from a torn ACL, Graham will probably draw Demaryius Thomas in coverage, kicking inside to cover Wes Welker in three-wide sets.
Covering two receivers with such varying styles of play isn't going to be easy.
Denver Broncos Major Storyline No. 1: The Ball Tolls for Thee
One of the biggest questions facing the Denver Broncos this summer has been the running back position.
Montee Ball was drafted in April to be the team's feature back but has had his share of problems with pass protection. Second-year pro Ronnie Hillman ran well in the preseason but lost a pair of fumbles. Veteran Knowshon Moreno is a dependable, albeit unspectacular back who lacks Hillman's speed or Ball's power, however, his game is more well rounded.
According to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, we'll see plenty of all three backs on Thursday night.
Hillman and Moreno struggled in last year's matchup, gaining fewer than four yards a carry. That means it may fall to Ball to get the Broncos some balance on offense by banging away between the tackles.
Denver Broncos Major Storyline No. 2: Pass Rush Problems
In 2012, the Denver Broncos ranked first in the NFL with 52 sacks.
It's been a rough offseason for that pass rush.
The top two sack artists from that defense are no longer in Denver. Actually, that's not entirely accurate. Dumervil will be in Denver Thursday, but after one of the weirdest scenarios involving a fax machine in history, he will be chasing Manning, not Joe Flacco.
Linebacker Von Miller is serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Defensive end Derek Wolfe is nursing a sore neck after a scary preseason injury.
That puts more than a little pressure on the likes of Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers to get after Flacco. Otherwise, Flacco will have all day to attack a Denver secondary that will be without top cornerback Champ Bailey.
Denver Broncos Most Important Matchup: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie vs. Torrey Smith
Given that the two most important matchups in this game involve cornerbacks, it's safe to infer that the football is going to get slung around Sports Authority Field Thursday night.
The Broncos announced Wednesday that Bailey will not play Thursday due to an injured foot, according to Dan Hanzus of NFL.com.
Of course, given that Bailey was roasted like a turkey in his last game against the Ravens, that may not be a bad thing.
Mike Klis of The Denver Post reported last week that Bailey's absence would leave free-agent acquisition Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as the defensive back locked up with Ravens speedster Torrey Smith Thursday.
Rodgers-Cromartie struggled mightily last year with the Philadephia Eagles, grading 98th at his position, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). However, he did grade out substantially better (42nd) in coverage.
Smith is far and away the Ravens' best option through the air, and Flacco will all but certainly test Rodgers-Cromartie early and often.
Maybe this time around the safety that's assigned to help in deep coverage won't just stand there while a Baltimore receiver races past them to reel in a game-tying touchdown pass in the game's waning moments.
That would be helpful, but regardless, Rodgers-Cromartie needs to bring his "A" game.
The rematch factor has been talked to death in this game, and honestly, both of these teams look much different than they did back in January.
The Broncos got even better on offense with the addition of Welker, but Dumervil's defection and Miller's trip to the principal's office cast serious questions over the defense.
The Ravens did an excellent job of filling the holes that appeared on their roster in the offseason. The problem is, the one hole the team didn't fill (Boldin) became much larger when Pitta went down.
For all those changes, however, there's one thing that will remain the same in this contest.
A lot of points are going to be scored.
The Ravens may well have the edge on defense this time around, but given the receiving options at his disposal, Manning is going to get his.
Meanwhile, the pass rush and the secondary are both big question marks for the Broncos. If Flacco is afforded all day in the pocket, the perceived disparity in talent at receiver between the two teams may not matter.
Expect a back-and-forth, high-scoring affair. Were this game in Baltimore (as it should be), I'd likely be inclined to favor the champs.
Thanks to the Orioles, it's not. That will open the door for some late-game heroics by Manning, a last-second field goal from Matt Prater and a measure of redemption for the Broncos.
Final Score Prediction: Broncos 30, Ravens 28
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