Two of the AFC's best will meet in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, but the Broncos and Ravens are trending in different directions. The Broncos enter Week 15 on an eight-game winning streak, with the AFC West comfortably in hand and a shot at the No. 1 seed in their sights. Baltimore, on the other hand, has dropped two straight in extremely frustrating fashion and fired their offensive coordinator this week with just three games left.
Manning has not missed a beat after sitting out last season. He's a favorite for NFL MVP, and the Broncos are a legitimate contender trending toward a first-round bye in the playoffs. After an early-season flurry and impressive use of the no-huddle, the Ravens offense has stalled out over the past month. Cam Cameron was let go this week and now Jim Caldwell, who has no experience as an offensive coordinator, steps in to try and stop the bleeding as the season wraps up. Both teams will undoubtedly be in the postseason, but can Baltimore halt this late-season skid and snap the Manning momentum in Denver?
Meet the Ravens
Baltimore is 9-4 this season, and has lost just once at home. But that defeat came just two weeks ago, a disappointing three-point loss to a Charlie Batch-led Steelers team. Since then, the Ravens have coughed up a second half lead and lost in overtime to the Redskins, and fired Cameron. This is a critical Week 15 game against one of the league's best, and it may be a make-or-break type opportunity that could determine what kind of impact they'll have on the 2012 postseason.
The offense carried the Ravens to their impressive start, but they have sputtered in the second half of the season. In Caldwell's first game making the calls, expect All-Pro rusher Ray Rice to see a lot of action. Rice is as reliable as ever, both on the ground and as a pass-catching option out of the backfield. He had a season-high 121 rushing yards last week, although he's been neglected at certain points this season. Denver has one of the best rush defenses in the NFL, but Rice is a top flight offensive weapon, especially at home, and he should get a bulk of carries early in the game as Baltimore tries to keep Manning off the field.
Quarterback Joe Flacco appeared to make "the jump" early this season, but he's struggled mightily as of late. Flacco's been unable to move the offense with much consistency. He came out firing last week against the Redskins, but the offense went quiet in the second half. He's also thrown interceptions in each of the Ravens last two losses. Torrey Smith is the top target, and he'll work deep down the field and outside the numbers against a good Denver pass defense. Anquan Boldin will also try to use his size against the Broncos corners. Giving Flacco time to unload it to those receivers will be a huge challenge, as Denver boasts some elite pass rushers in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.
Baltimore is beat up on defense, playing without several stars. There were rumblings that Ray Lewis, who has not played since Week 6, might try to come back this Sunday. But he will be inactive. Terrell Suggs has a torn biceps and the team was holding out hope he'd be able to go. He's questionable, but if he can suit up, it should have a huge impact on Baltimore's ability to get to Manning. Linebacker Jameel McLain, another significant contributor in the front seven, has already been ruled out. The Ravens defense has given up big numbers all season, and Manning won't provide any sort of let up. The defense, particularly the secondary, will have to get some stops if they are to have a shot at home against Manning. That likely starts with applying pressure and getting to the Hall-of-Fame quarterback.
Meet the Broncos
Denver is one game ahead of the Ravens in the AFC Playoff picture and currently slotted into the three seed. They have not lost a game since the first week of October, but the schedule has been exceedingly favorable. This will be their toughest test in two months, and with the Ravens nursing several injuries in a late-season skid, Denver is favored to keep it rolling on the road.
Manning is making a bid for his fifth MVP, leading the AFC with 30 touchdown passes. After sitting out last year, he seems to have gotten stronger as this season has progressed and the Broncos are now in prime position for a deep postseason run. He shredded Oakland in the Broncos last game, and after enjoying an extended week off, he'll have another shot at a big day against this vulnerable Ravens defense. Baltimore is 23rd in the league, yielding more than 246 yards passing per game.
It hasn't taken long for Manning to establish rapport and perfect rhythm with his array of pass catchers. Demaryius Thomas has both the size and speed to present a mismatch each week, and he leads the team with eight touchdowns and nearly 1200 yards receiving. Thomas has been bothered by a shoulder injury, but he's probable for Week 15. Manning will likely target Thomas deep down the field, and repeatedly throw to Eric Decker coming over the middle, creating a potentially long day for the Baltimore secondary.
It's not all Manning, however, as the Broncos defense is among the top seven in the league against both the pass and the run. They will be facing a green offensive coordinator in Manning's former quarterbacks coach. Miller may be the game's best pass rusher, and while Flacco has some mobility, the Broncos should have their chances to get to the lanky QB. The defense is in relatively good health after the extra long week and they should expect Manning and the offense to put up points on the other side. Can they control an inconsistent Baltimore offense to make it nine straight?
Local Takes: Ravens
Bruce Raffel of Baltimore Beatdown exhorts Flacco to watch and mimic Manning this week:
Now, Flacco could see up close and first-hand, how an expert takes his time, reads defenses, makes changes (or not?) with a flurry of hand signals, audibles and perhaps even a slew of meaningless words designed to merely confuse the defense. Once the ball is snapped, watch Peyton keep his eyes downfield, looking off receivers to fool or move defenders where he wants them, then take his time, move in and around the pocket and then calmly find his target.
Local Takes: Broncos
Broncos blog Mile High Report has the game covered from all angles, including a defensive preview for both teams by Scotty Payne:
The Broncos secondary has been pretty good this year. Champ Bailey hauled in his 2nd Int of the year last week, and has 54 tackles on the year. One of my favorite players, Chris Harris continues to impress. Harris on the year has 50 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 2 Ints. Tony Carter has been solid as well. Carter has 25 tackles and 2 Ints. At safety Rahim Moore has been playing well for the most part. On the year Moore has 59 tackles and 1 Int, the veteran Mike Adams has 68 tackles and 1 sacks, and Jim Leonhard has 15 tackles and 2 Ints. Look for Flacco to attack deep, so the safeties have to make sure no one gets past them deep.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Ravens-Broncos Preview & Prediction sbn.to/ZqN1c3— Bruce Raffel (@BaltimoreBeatdo) December 14, 2012
@JeffZrebiecSun - Ravens beat reporter
Injuries have forced the Ravens to lean on a patchwork defense baltimoresun.com/sports/ravens/…— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiecsun) December 16, 2012
@TomKensler - Broncos beat reporter
The Broncos haven't lost since Oct. 7. Sunday's game is a big one because this could be a playoff preview. The Broncos could also meet the Texans and/or Patriots, two teams they lost to this year. Denver's winning a lot of games, eight in a row. Beating Baltimore would prove it can hang with the class of the AFC.
The pick: 17-16, Broncos
The game opened as a pick 'em, but according to OddsShark, the Broncos have moved to three-point favorites on the road.