Meet the Broncos
John Fox's Broncos struggled early in the season, starting out the season 2-3 after the team's first five games -- with losses to the Falcons, Texans and Patriots. Manning and the Broncos haven't lost since, as the Broncos rattled off 11 consecutive victories to secure the AFC's No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs, all the while Manning asserted himself as one of three legitimate MVP candidates in the league.
Unlike last year's Tim Tebow-led Broncos, this year's Manning-led Broncos boast one of the league's top passing units. Denver averaged 283.4 yards per game through the air (fifth best in the NFL), while maintaining a legitimate ground game that averaged 114.5 yards per game (16th in the NFL).
Denver also boasts one of the league's best defenses, surrendering just 199.6 yards per game through the air (third-best in the NFL), and allowing just 91.1 yards per game on the ground (third best). Only the Seahawks, 49ers and Bears surrendered fewer points than the Broncos did in 2012.
Meet the Ravens
Unlike Denver, Baltimore started the season on fire, racing off to a 9-2 record -- despite losing Ray Lewis to injury after Week 6. The Ravens, however, limped down the stretch, losing four of their last five games, but still claiming the AFC North title.
Baltimore's late-season struggles culminated with the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who was replaced by former Colts head coach, Jim Caldwell.
Joe Flacco and the Ravens passing attack ranked No. 15 in the league in yards per game (233.7). Baltimore's rushing attack, led by Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, ranked 11th in the NFL, averaging 118.8 yards per game.
Defense is synonymous with Baltimore football, but this year, Baltimore's defense ranked in the bottom half in the league. Baltimore's defense allowed opposing quarterbacks to pass for 228.1 yards per game (17th in the league), while running backs rushed for 122.8 yards per game (20th in the league) against Baltimore.
Local Takes: Broncos
Colby of Mile High Report believes that the Broncos should exploit Ray Lewis in coverage -- and if they do, it'll help lead Denver to the AFC title game:
Many of those 13 tackles were down field and it is a skewed stat. Many tackles were unblocked and according to Pro Football Focus, Lewis gave up four first downs in coverage and another was dropped. Lewis in coverage was slow and could easily be beat. Do you think we could put Demaryius Thomas, the strongest most physical player the Broncos have at a skilled position could line up in the slot and beat Lewis? I think it is for sure a possibility. The middle of the field will be open against Baltimore, especially with the long pass plays we got on them last game.
Local Takes: Ravens
Vlad over at Baltimore Beat Down argues that the Ravens are better than they appear to be right now -- and that NFL fans and critics alike shouldn't pencil the Broncos in the AFC title game just yet:
Look at our opposing QB's -- one is a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate who, on the road, averages 20-plus points per game and almost 300 yards, and a two-time Super Bowl winning QB fighting for his playoff life. Not exactly pushovers and our defense shut them both down. In addition this defense, while basically playing with both arms and one leg tied behind its back (think the Black Knight from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail") in terms of injuries, held Peyton in check for the first half before succumbing.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Ravens-Colts: One Last Look sbn.to/REkjRt— Bruce Raffel (@BaltimoreBeatdo) January 8, 2013
@Jeff_Legwold -- Broncos beat writer
#Broncos stat o' the day: Games w/ at least 70% comp. for Manning this year: 10. Games w/70% comp. for Broncos QBs 2008-2011: 8.— Jeff Legwold(@Jeff_Legwold) January 8, 2013
@jeffzrebiecsun-- Ravens beat writer
Boldin says he was hoping to get Denver in next round. "We'll make it different."— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiecsun) January 6, 2013
All signs are pointing to the Broncos in this game. The Ravens are talented enough on defense that I'm not ruling out a big day defensively but I can't find any area in this game where Baltimore has a clear advantage. There's a reason the Broncos are 9.5-point favorites.
The pick: 30-20, Broncos
The Broncos are favored to win by as few as eight-and-a-half points, and as many as 10, according to OddsShark. The over/under for the game is 46.
If the Broncos defeat the Ravens, they'll host to either the New England Patriots or Houston Texans in the AFC title game. If the Ravens pull off the upset, they'll head either to Houston or Foxboro to play for the AFC crown.