NFL Playoff Preview - Baltimore (11-6) at Denver (13-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Ray Lewis and his Ravens travel to Denver to face off with the Broncos in a divisional-round matchup Baltimore hopes is far more successful than its 34-17 loss to Peyton Manning and Co. back in Week 15.
Baltimore, the reigning AFC North champions, punched its ticket to the second round of the postseason with a 24-9 win over Indianapolis last Sunday behind Lewis and quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns en route to becoming the only signal-caller in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons.
"We're looking forward to this," said Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who had all of his 145 receiving yards against the Colts in the second half, the most after intermission in a postseason game since Jerry Rice collected 157 in Super Bowl XXIII. "I was hoping we'd get Denver again. This time we'll make it different."
To do that Lewis will have to extend his final season yet again, this time against one of his few peers in the legacy department, Manning.
As the Ravens' win over the Colts was winding down last weekend Lewis raced to the center of M&T Bank Stadium and the Baltimore crowd erupted. The seven-time All-Pro, who had announced his retirement at season's end in the week before the game, was part of the Ravens' victory formation and did his trademarked "Squirrel Dance" one last time for the hometown faithful after Baltimore wrapped up the emphatic win.
"There's no great reward than for me to take this last victory lap for me to see my team," Lewis told CBS after the game. "Because we have a vision. We're not trying to end here. This is just my last game at Ravens stadium, and it's the most awesome thing you could ever ask for in any professional career."
It's been a long and often surreal ride for Lewis -- once indicted for murder and now regarded as one of the faces of the NFL.
During the pregame festivities, Lewis was almost a one-man receiving line, accepting well-wishes from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, along with his teammates and children.
If you thought Lewis, who is bound for Canton as the heart and soul of the Ravens franchise as well as a leader of one of most consistent and ferocious defensive units of this generation, might be distracted, however, think again. In his first game since suffering a torn triceps in mid-October, the 17-year veteran was credited with 13 tackles in spearheading Baltimore's win.
"My only focus was to come in and get my team a win. Nothing else was planned," Lewis said. "It's one of those things, when you recap it all and try to say what is one of your greatest moments. I knew how it started, but I never knew how it would end here in Baltimore. I wouldn't change nothing."
Perhaps inspired by the return of Lewis, the Ravens defense, which has been pedestrian for most of the season, held the upstart Colts to three Adam Vinatieri field goals, and spoiled the playoff debut of potential NFL Rookie of the Year Andrew Luck and the return of Chuck Pagano to Baltimore. Pagano, of course, spent four years as an assistant under John Harbaugh before taking over the Colts last January.
"We definitely wanted to come out and put on a great performance for (Lewis') last time at M&T Bank Stadium," Boldin said.
Outside linebacker Paul Kruger proved to be a Philip Seymour-Hoffman-like co- star to Lewis, registering 2 1/2 of the Ravens' three sacks during the game and causing one of three takeaways with a forced fumble.
"I saw him get to the quarterback a whole bunch," Harbaugh said of Kruger. "He played tremendously well."
The Broncos, the AFC West kingpins who enjoyed a bye last week after winning their final 11 regular season games, are the AFC's No. 1 seed and have home- field advantage throughout the conference bracket.
Manning, who was sidelined for the entire 2011 season following four neck surgeries, comes in after a spectacular first season in the Rockies and with 5,389 career postseason passing yards, the third-most in NFL history behind Brett Favre (5,855) and Joe Montana (5,772).
The Ravens, who are 7-5 all-time on road in postseason, lead their all-time series with the Broncos by a slim 5-4 margin, and Baltimore also won the lone postseason matchup, a 21-3 wild card win back on Dec. 31, 2000.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Denver offense, which is fourth in the NFL averaging 397.9 yards per game, tends to wear opponents down, leading the NFL with a plus-161 scoring differential in the second half, a number which represented the third-highest such figure since the 1970 NFL merger and the best since Green Bay in 1996.
The reason for that is generally the tempo Manning forces an opposing defense to play at. One of the smartest quarterbacks to ever play the game, Manning is one of the few signal-callers in the NFL who can survey things at the line of scrimmage and get his team into the proper play on a consistent basis. By limiting substitutions, the Broncos put an incredible strain on defensive players used to limited snaps counts in the era of specialization.
Manning could be on the verge of his record fifth MVP award after leading the NFL in completion percentage (68.6), finishing second in passer rating (105.8), third in touchdowns (37) and sixth in yards (4,659) for a team that averaged 30.1 points per game, the second-highest output in the league.
"It's been quite a year for me," Manning said. "I remember one year ago I was in a hospital bed watching opening day, so there's a little reminder there of how far I've come."
Manning has wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas on the outside, the youngest receiving tandem in NFL history to each post 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in the same season.
The Ravens were missing three defensive starters the last time they played Denver: Lewis, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and safety Bernard Pollard. Meanwhile star pass rusher Terrell Suggs has just returned from his latest injury, a biceps problem..
"It's the right time to be healthy, and I'm hoping those guys will have a big impact," Harbaugh said.
"They've got three pretty formidable guys back on defense that they did not have in our last contest," Broncos coach John Fox added. "So this will be a completely different game, a completely different test. A lot of new faces."
Lewis, who missed 10 games this season, belongs on the Mount Rushmore of linebackers and although he's not the player he once was, the leadership he brings to the field has been sorely lacking from a Ravens' defense, which finished 17th in total defense at 350.9 yards allowed per game, the franchise's worst showing on that side of the ball since 2002.
"Ball is ball. It doesn't matter what level," Fox said when talking about Lewis. "There's people, leaders on teams, players in particular, that raise all boats, raise all levels, and they can inspire, no doubt, and he does that."
Offensively Baltimore hopes a more-entrenched Jim Caldwell will help. Caldwell, who helped coach Manning for years while in Indianapolis, was in his first game as an offensive coordinator for the Ravens after replacing the fired Cam Cameron in Week 15 against the Broncos.
The Ravens struggled mightily in that game, especially early with five straight three-and-outs. Since then, Caldwell and the Ravens offense have turned it on, putting up 533 yards of offense against the New York Giants in Week 16. The team then rested players in the regular season finale before ringing up a franchise postseason record 441 yards last Sunday against Indianapolis.
Caldwell has brought some of the Manning-like, up-tempo process to the Baltimore offense and has been more willing to let Flacco generate things from outside the pocket. That's a key since the University of Delaware product was sacked three times and hit nine times by the Broncos in the first meeting.
"(Caldwell's) probably a little bit more comfortable throughout the week now and kind of a little bit more settled in," Flacco said.
An offensive line shift and am improved running game have also made things easier on Flacco. When left guard Jah Reid went down with a toe injury, the Ravens reinserted veteran Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, moved Michael Oher back to right tackle and shifted rookie Kelechi Osemele to left guard. Meanwhile, rookie Bernard Pierce has been teaming with Pro-Bowler Ray Rice for a nice 1-2 combination in the backfield.
Pierce has actually been hotter player recently, rushing 14 times for 123 yards versus the Giants and 13 times for 103 yards against the Colts, while Rice put it on the ground twice against Indy.
"They've got a good run game and they have all season long," Fox said. "Both guys can come at you as a good one-two punch. We saw both of them in our first contest. Both very, very capable."
Jack Del Rio spearheads a Denver defensive unit which held opponents to 25-of- 126 (19.8 percent) on third downs over the last nine games, by far the best mark in the NFL over that span.
It's not surprising that the Broncos put a lot of heat on Flacco during the regular season. Star rush linebacker Von Miller is the straw that stirs the drink on the Denver defense, finishing his second NFL season ranked in the top five in sacks, quarterback knockdowns, quarterback hurries, tackles for a loss, run stuffs and forced fumbles. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate posted a franchise-record 18 1/2 sacks overall in addition to ranking second in the league in tackles for a loss (28) and tying for third in the NFL with six forced fumbles.
Undersized defensive end Elvis Dumervil added 11 sacks and combines with Miller to give Denver a ferocious pass rush off the edge.
Baltimore looked like a different team last weekend with Lewis, Suggs and Pollard back on defense, swarming and confusing a rookie quarterback. This game isn't in the Charm City, however, and Manning is the farthest thing from a freshman.
The Ravens will be playing a mile above sea level this time with Peyton playing hurry-up and making conditioning an issue for the visitors.
"You just have to be ready to go into a hostile environment and play your best football," Flacco said.
Manning has won nine straight overall versus the Ravens, including two playoff matchups despite throwing three interceptions and posting a mediocre 68.3 rating in the two postseason contests.
"It's just one of those chess matches," Lewis said. "(Manning) knows me very well. I know him very well ... But at the end of the day, it's not about me and me and Peyton. It's about their team against our team.
"I love our team right now."
Since Denver is 13-3 at home in the postseason, Lewis probably should love the Broncos a little bit more.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 24, Ravens 17
01/10 12:45:31 ET