1. What clicked and when for Denver and Manning to get it all on the same page and go on this impressive run?
I think the easiest answer would be the 2nd half of the Chargers game on Monday Night Football. TheBroncos offense had struggled in the first half of every game, including that one, and had always come back. Until that night, however, those comebacks fell short - against the Falcons, Texans and Patriots. At 2-3, on the road, trailing 24-0, the Broncos scored 35 unanswered to win. If Denver loses that game the season may have turned out much differently. I think that gave the team the confidence that they could keep up with Peyton and despite a few bumps along the way they have been rolling ever since.
2. Everyone knew the offense would be good with Peyton, but how has the defense emerged as a top unit?
Lost in 2011 Tim Tebow circus was the fact that the defense played extremely well and was a big reason the Broncos finished 8-8 and won the AFC West. Sure, there were some blowouts, but the offense wasn't giving them any help at all. Having Manning at the helm helps the defense just as much - of not more - than it helps the offense. The Broncos play from in front, which fits what they do well perfectly. With Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil rushing the passer, it is very hard to come back against Denver. They are also strong in the defensive backfield. Champ Bailey has been reenergized by a couple of youngsters (Chris Harris and Tony Carter) who each have made huge plays this season. There's also a certain confidence that comes with knowing you can make a mistake and Peyton is there to pick you up. It's been a huge snowball effect this season with the offense and defense feeding off each other.
3. From the Ravens point-of-view, how would you attack the Bronco's offense? The defense?
The teams that have given Manning and the offense fits this season have done a great job of disguising coverage pre-snap. They disguise what they are doing so what Manning thinks he sees and what is actually happening are two different things. Like all offenses, you can't let the Broncos beat you two different ways. The Ravens will need to stop the run so the Broncos are one-dimensional. Lastly, and this is the big one, the Ravens blitzed a ton against the Colts last week. That makes sense going against a rookie quarterback. Against Peyton Manning, however, Baltimore will need to get pressure with a four-man rush.
As for the defense, my biggest fear anytime the Broncos face the Ravens is seeing Ray Rice with the ball. He is the one game changer on that offense. If Baltimore can run the ball and get the ball to Rice in the short passing game - and move the chains doing it - they would keep Manning off the field and that might be their best defense.
The key for Baltimore is to shorten the game. Remove possessions by controlling the clock. A normal game has 12 or 13 possessions for each team. If that happens this week, Denver wins.
4. Give me one lesser-known player on each side of the ball to watch.
Great question. I'll go completely outside the box on offense and say running back Jacob Hester. The Broncos signed him late in the season and he has come in and done an excellent job, especially in short-yardage. With Willis McGahee out, the Broncos really didn't have that guy to get a tough yard or two, but Hester has filled that gap. If the Broncos get in short-yardage, you'll likely see Hester.
On defense I am going to go with linebacker Wesley Woodyard. He played his college ball at Kentucky and went undrafted, but Woodyard was the team leader in tackles and is tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions. Woodyard is strong in every facet (5.5 sacks, 6 passes defensed) and plays much bigger than his size. When the Broncos defense is really rolling, Woodyard is a big part of it.
5. You prediction and score. Thanks!
I won't lie, this game scares me because the Ravens have the talent to play with anyone, even if they don't show it every week. That said, those 86 defensive snaps for the Ravens last week had to take their toll on an aging defense. The team played with a high level of emotion last week and when it was over there was celebratory feel - justifiably so. It's just me, but when you make the decision to walk away, you lose something mentally and Ray Lewis is the heart and soul of that football team.
The altitude is going to be a factor. The Broncos are going to go no-huddle and they will use formations to force Lewis into coverage. Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen have a huge day. Denver will get a lead, make the Ravens play one-dimensional football, and the Broncos will unleash their pass-rush. It's close early, but the Broncos just have too much for a worn down Ravens defense.
Broncos win 30-16