As the path to the Super Bowl nears its sharp end, Romilly Evans expects Peyton Manning to lead his Broncos on a stampede against Baltimore in this Divisional match-up
Back in Week 15, the Denver Broncos annihilated the Baltimore Ravens 34-17. And that was in spite of a fourth quarter in which the Broncos downed their offensive tools and munched the clock to secure the win. Otherwise their 31-3 third-quarter lead would've doubtless been extended.
Now, considering that victory only arrived a few weeks ago, is there any reason to suppose a different outcome this weekend in the first game of the Divisional Round? Of course, in a fickle game which can swing on turnovers, it's always unwise to get the tracing paper out for repeat results. Nevertheless, on the face of it, it's hard to offer Ravens fans much hope of overcoming the handicap, let alone the match odds.
Let's have a look at the intervening period which has at least seen Baltimore overcome the potential stumbling block of the Indianapolis Colts at home in Wildcard Weekend. It proved a draining triumph for the Ravens - both physically and emotionally. Firstly, it was likely the last home game played by their storied defensive leader, Ray Lewis, who is now looking forward to retirement. Secondly, their personnel's collective energy on either side of the ball will have been sapped in a protracted 87-snap contest.
On the plus side, the Jekyll-and-Hyde performer that is Joe Flacco wore his presentable face. Hooking up with Anquan Boldin was his preferred modus operandi, connecting with the star receiver for 145 yards and the crowning touchdown (a Ravens record for a wideout in the play-offs). Bernard Pierce also looks capable of some further ground gains, so the Baltimore offense has certainly clicked into a higher gear. In fact, getting rid of Cam Cameron as offensive co-ordinator, coupled with the introduction of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, has shored up the O line.
Legendary linebacker Lewis may be back to lead the D, but the Purple Wall is not what it was. Still, defense and the Ravens did flock together like birds of a feather for the first half of their latest Broncos match-up (restricting Peyton Manning and Co to a mere 10 points) and perhaps Lewis can inspire them to greater heights.
Denver's D, on the other hand, has already scaled new peaks this season. And that's largely down to their doughty duo of defensive ends, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The pair have broken recent franchise marks for sacks and strips; Dumervil posting a 10-sack season for the third time in his career, while Miller has gone even better with 18.5 sacks, the most by a Bronco since 1982. They form the mobile nose of a defensive juggernaut which ranks second in the NFL overall.
Not that their offense is too shabby either. Manning senior's comeback from neck surgery has perhaps been the story of the season - his 37 TDs and 105.8 passer rating eclipsing all his AFC rivals this term, including Tom Brady. The four-time MVP has even racked up the air miles to 5,389 yards, the third highest mark in league history. And with a varied receiving corps of targets, Manning's ability to pick apart defenses seems more pronounced than ever.
In essence, then, it's a Baltimore team looking to harness a wave of warm and fuzzies versus a Denver outfit based on the cold, computational calculations of Manning. It might not sound like a lot of fun, but the Broncos should starve the Ravens of oxygen at Mile High.
Look to play Denver on both the first-half handicap and the double-result, as Manning will be keen to exert an early stranglehold. From there on in, discretion may prove the better part of valour controlling the clock, so go Under on Total Points too.