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NFL Preview - Denver (10-3) at Baltimore (9-4)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - There's Denver Broncos history. And then there's Peyton Manning history.

And given the drastic difference between them when it comes to the Baltimore Ravens, it's easy to grasp why fans of the orange-clad Broncos are choosing to go all in with their quarterback's pedigree.

Denver has lost in each of its last five trips to Maryland's Inner Harbor -- where it will visit the Ravens Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium -- including the two most recent games by a combined 37 points.

Meanwhile, Manning, who arrived in Colorado this season after 13 glorious years with the Indianapolis Colts, has won eight in a row against Baltimore -- most recently in a divisional playoff contest in January 2010.

Four of those wins came on the Ravens' home field.

Yet, with playoff positioning at a premium for the two AFC division leaders, Manning isn't leaning too heavily on accomplishments.

"I can't speak to the past," he said. "All I know is we're going on the road, playing an excellent team."

Both the Broncos and Ravens are jockeying for an edge in the upcoming postseason tournament. Denver has already clinched the AFC West and trails conference leader Houston by one game with three to play. The Ravens are two games clear of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the AFC North, though they trail the top-seeded Texans by a similar two-game margin.

As of today, the Broncos are seeded third in a six-team field and Baltimore is fourth.

"This will be a playoff-type game," Denver coach Jon Fox said. "You're talking about a team that's been in the playoffs four straight years. I think Coach (John) Harbaugh's done a tremendous job. They've got excellent staff, excellent football team, they know how to win and part of that is being tough at home. They've only lost one game there this year."

The Broncos have run roughshod over their division in an eight-game win streak, the franchise's longest since it won 13 straight to begin the 1998 season -- which ended in a second straight Super Bowl for quarterback-turned- executive John Elway.

The most recent win in the streak came last week in Oakland, where Manning connected on 26 of 36 throws for 310 yards and a touchdown in a 26-13 win. He leads the conference with 30 touchdowns and is fourth in the league with a 104.0 passer rating.

Thus, the stakes are not difficult to ascertain for Baltimore's Harbaugh.

"It's a big game. We don't really need an incentive," he said. "The fact that us and Denver are both kind of in the mix for seeding and for division championships and those kinds of things, that makes it really interesting. This is a game that everybody should be excited about."

That said, the Broncos' recent eight-game joyride contrasts sharply with the Ravens, who've dropped two straight in excruciating fashion.

Baltimore lost to Pittsburgh via last-second regulation field goal on Dec. 2 and fell in overtime last week against Washington. The Steelers are the only team to win in Baltimore since Manning and the Colts did it in November 2009.

The rare in-season slump -- which has featured four Ravens turnovers in two weeks -- led to a change on Harbaugh's staff on Monday, when offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired and replaced by Jim Caldwell, who'd been the quarterbacks coach under Cameron and previously spent 10 seasons with Indianapolis.

He was Manning's QB coach for seven years and his head coach for three more before being replaced by Chuck Pagano in January. Soon after, Manning was released and signed with Denver when the Colts chose to pursue top-rated collegiate prospect Andrew Luck as their franchise passer.

"I felt like (Caldwell) really took my game to another level," Manning said. "He's also a tremendous mentor and friend to me."

Caldwell has had a similar rapport so far with Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw for three TDs and completed 76.1 percent of his passes against the Redskins.

On defense, it's been a battle of attrition for the Ravens, who may get Terrell Suggs back after he missed last week with a biceps injury. Also on the brink of a return is veteran Ray Lewis, who's not played since Week 6 with a triceps problem.

Linebacker Jameel McClain is definitely out with back/neck issues, and defensive back Asa Jackson will miss four games after a Tuesday suspension for violating the league's PED policy.

"This is by far one of those years," said safety Ed Reed, whose team is 24th in total defense and 25th stopping the run. "I think when coach first got here, second year, we had a lot of injuries. But not like this."

The Broncos are fourth in the league in both offense and defense. Running back Knowshon Moreno stepped in for the injured Willis McGahee and ran for 119 yards last week against the Raiders.

"I think any quarterback would tell you that his best friend is a good running game," Manning said. "It's a tough bunch against the run, starting in Baltimore, but we feel it's important, like all season, to be balanced."

The Ravens lead the all-time series, 5-3, and have won two straight games against Denver, including an October 2010 matchup in which Ray Rice ran for 133 yards and scored twice.

Harbaugh is 2-0 against the Broncos, while Fox has won two of three in his career against Baltimore.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Baltimore has long been known for an opportunistic, ball-hawking defensive unit and no player exemplifies that style more than Reed.

Expect Manning to determine the veteran safety's whereabouts on every trip to the line of scrimmage and attempt to deceive him with a long-established ability to focus his vision on one receiver before ultimately unloading the ball somewhere else. It's a tactic Manning will have to employ successfully to gain big chunks of yardage against a deep zone scheme.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Manning continues to add to the surprise -- and his MVP credentials -- every week the Broncos continue to win. And as long as he's at the level he's performed for the last two months, it's difficult to pick against him, especially when he's facing a foe whose defense has been gashed by lesser opponents. In the end, helped by his own stingy defense, look for No. 18 to find just enough ways to get points.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Broncos 20, Ravens 17

12/13 12:49:50 ET

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