USA TODAY Sports
The Baltimore Ravens path to the Super Bowl might hit a brick wall as they travel to take on the Denver Broncos, the NFL's hottest team.
The Ravens learned the hard way, like a lot of the NFL did this year, that the Broncos are a good team. Especially when Denver headed to Baltimore to lay a 34-17 beatdown in Week 15 that was a bit more lopsided than the score suggests.
Peyton Manning helped guide the Broncos to the AFC's best record in the NFL at 13-3 -- and he did so in style with the Broncos absolutely rolling into the playoffs, riding an 11-game winning streak. To make things even tougher for Baltimore, the Ravens will have to beat the Broncos at home; a place where Denver has enjoyed great success, going 13-3 in the postseason.
The Ravens bring a balanced attack to the table. They were middle of the pack in passing yards, averaging 233.7 yards per game, and 11th in the NFL in rushing yards with 118.8 yards per game. Ray Rice is the one of the focal points of the Ravens offense, averaging a total of 101.3 yards per game from scrimmage. Rice is a very good running back that will have a tough time against a very good Broncos defense.
For all the talk of Manning's resurgence from neck surgery this season, the Broncos defense was its stalwart self. They ranked third in the NFL against both the pass and the rush. A lot of this came from their first down defense -- where opposing rushers only averaged 3.49 yards per carry on the first down, tops in the NFL.
It isn't all doom and gloom for the Ravens, however. Despite their top-flight pass defense against the long ball, the Broncos have struggled mightily against tight ends, ranking 24th in the league defending tight ends. Although this only translates to an average of 60.5 yards per game, tight end Dennis Pitta was one of the few things that went right for the Ravens in their loss to the Broncos earlier in the season. He finished with seven receptions for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has also had good success in the postseason, and might be personally peaking at the best time. He is the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win a postseason game in his first five seasons in the league. He also posted his, and the Ravens, highest passer rating in the postseason at 125.6 in a 24-9 victory over the Colts last week. If Flacco is hot, the Ravens tend to win as they are 30-3 when he has a 100+ passer rating in a game.
Meanwhile, the Broncos have an offense that you would expect piloted by Manning: They are a very good passing team and a so-so rushing team. In his first year with the Broncos, Manning set single-season franchise records in passing yards (4,659), touchdown passes (37) and passer rating (105.8). He also has had the Ravens number throughout his career, going 9-2 against Baltimore -- including 2-0 in the postseason.
Although the Broncos don't rely on the run much, when they need those crucial yards in third-and-short situations, they more than often get it. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos converted 67 percent of runs that were third, fourth or goal-line situations with 1 or 2 yards needed. This doesn't spell well for the Ravens defense, which once known for its might struggled this season with injuries and age. The Ravens allow opponents to convert 76 percent of those short yardage situations.
Statistically, there isn't much going the Ravens' way to suggest a victory. But if history means anything in this wild football world, then the Ravens have the big edge on the Broncos. This is only the second meeting between the two teams in the playoffs. The first one, 13 years ago, was a 21-3 victory for the Ravens where Jamal Lewis rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns and the defense held the Broncos to just 177 total yards.