The odds-makers have the Baltimore Ravens 9.5 point underdogs to the Denver Broncos in their AFC Divisional Round playoff game tomorrow afternoon (4:30pm ET) at Mile High Stadium. The combination of the Broncos 10-game winning streak, the Ravens having lost four of their final five regular season games, including a 34-17 beatdown in Baltimore is the basis for this spread.
However, the Ravens have no intention of going into the frigid thin air and laying down and just handing the spot in the AFC Championship Game to them. Different from the first time these two teams met is the much better health of the Ravens on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, RG Marshal Yanda did not play and is back for this game. The Ravens shuffled their o-line recently and appear to have the best combination on the field for perhaps the first time all season. There appears to be no question that the combination of Michael Oher at right tackle and Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, with rookie Kelechi Osemele at left guard and of course veteran Matt Birk snapping the ball gives the Ravens the best chance to protect QB Joe Flacco and open holes for both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
With proper protection, Flacco is a much better QB, both at home and on the road. The Ravens will need to protect Flacco, as the Broncos pass rush is the key to their defense. Under pressure, Flacco is inconsistent at best, unsure of his pocket presence and prone to making mistakes in the form of fumbles and ill-timed interceptions. At the same time, if given time to throw, there is no reason he can't torch the Denver secondary. The operative term will be "if" he has time.
Defensively, the Ravens will have another week of rest under the belts of their veterans and having Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard and Haloti Ngata a bit healthier will show the Broncos a much different defense than they saw a month ago when Lewis, Pollard and Dannell Ellerbe all missed the game. The defense may be returning to their dominant form after not giving up a TD to the Indianapolis Colts last week in the Ravens 24-9 victory.
This by no means compare the Peyton Manning-less Colts to Manning's current Broncos, as he took a while to get in gear but is obviously clicking on all cylinders. He will use the no-huddle offense to both tire out the big guys in the trenches as well as limit the Ravens ability to get substitutions on the field to spell the tired big guys.
Do not underestimate the Denver run game either, but hopefully, the Ravens will shut that down enough to focus on pressuring Manning even in his short2-3 step drops and throw his timing off to hope for a turnover or two. Turnovers will once again be the deciding factor in this game and if the Ravens do not both protect the ball when on offense or force them while on defense, the odds of coming out with a victory will be slimmer.
However, make no bones about it, this is a winnable game for Baltimore, as they have proved on the road in the playoffs that they can win. In eight career road games in the post season, Baltimore is 4-4. Fans know they should be 5-3 but last year's heartbreaking season-ender at the New England Patriots changed that. If it comes down to a final possession, hopefully, the Ravens will have the ball, as there are not too many QBs in NFL history as good as Manning leading game-winning drives.
Unfortunately, while I expect this game to be a slugfest into the fourth quarter, it's just really tough to expect the Ravens to go on the road in such a difficult environment against such a great QB and expect the near-perfect game that would be needed to pull off the upset and win. I can see a proud Ravens performance from everyone, including Flacco, in hopes of giving Ray Lewis a fairy tale ending to his amazing career, but sadly believe it might be a bit more of a fantasy than a reality.
Don't hate or vilify me, Ravens fans, as the only other time all season I picked the Ravens to lose was when they played the Broncos in the regular season. Once again, I pray my prediction is wrong, but here it is:
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