Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos — Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
The storylines are too juicy to ignore. Peyton Manning is set to play his first playoff game in just over two years. Ray Lewis is gearing up to play, after 17 hard-hitting seasons, what could be his last game ever. On top of that, the Baltimore Ravens got spanked by these same Denver Broncos just last month.
Manning’s last playoff appearance was far from his best—he threw for only 225 yards and one touchdown in an 17-16 loss to Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets. But that’s all in the past for Manning. As in, four neck surgeries and a lost season ago, followed by a dominant 13-3 season with the Broncos. After starting 2-3 against some tough competition, Manning and company reeled off 11 straight wins (and counting) to lock up the top seed in the AFC, a first-round bye and home field advantage.
Baltimore, meanwhile, is coming off a hard-fought win over the Indianapolis Colts in a game that was a clash of emotional forces. The ChuckStrong Colts had ridden the motivation provided by their cancer-beating coach, Chuck Pagano, all the way to an 11-5 record and a surprise playoff berth. The Ravens, meanwhile, got their emotional boost from their unquestioned leader, Lewis. As you’ve probably heard, No. 52 says he will be hanging it up after the season, news he sprung on the Ravens just before the playoffs started. The defense hit, Lewis danced, Baltimore advanced with a 24-9 win.
Last time the Broncos and Ravens met, things got out of hand quickly. Denver held an early lead, but blew the game wide open at the end of the first half. After driving down to the Broncos’ five-yard line, the Ravens had a first-and-goal with 30 seconds left in the half and three timeouts to burn. Trailing 10-0, Baltimore had a chance to turn it into a one-score game. Instead, Joe Flacco threw an interception to Denver CB Chris Harris, who sprinted 98 yards the other way to make it 17-0.
Baltimore never recovered.
The Broncos ran the score up to 31-3 before the Ravens could blink. The 34-17 final score is a bit misleading, as Denver dominated this game as thoroughly as possible until garbage time.
Baltimore will have the benefit of improved health this time around. Lewis, LB Dannelle Ellerbe, S Bernard Pollard, G Marshal Yanda and TE Ed Dickson all missed the first matchup with Denver, and all will play on Saturday.
They also seem to have shaken out of the late-season funk that dropped them out of contention for a bye. After losing three straight, the third loss coming against Denver, the Ravens blew out the fading New York Giants before resting their starters in week 17. Against Indianapolis, Flacco looked as good as he had in months. The offense piled up 441 total yards and Flacco hooked up with Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice for several momentum-swinging plays.
Denver, however, is playing perhaps the best football of any team in the league. The Broncos’ last four wins have all been by double digits, with both the offense and defense firing on all cylinders. Manning has been Manning, while receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas provide him with dangerous targets. The Ravens will also have to contend with a ferocious defense (second in total yards allowed) led by pass-rushing star Von Miller.
The Ravens will no doubt bring everything they have to the field in Denver, hoping to keep their leader’s career going for at least one more game. And while they’ll be aided by the presence of some stars on both sides that are finally healthy, this team has been inconsistent all season, especially on the road. Denver, meanwhile, has played like the best team in the league over the last three quarters of the season, and that’s not likely to stop on Saturday.
So get ready to welcome Peyton back to the playoff party, and get ready to say farewell to one of the greatest defensive players of all time.
Prediction: Broncos 34, Ravens 20