The Baltimore Ravens will attempt to win their third AFC Divisional playoff game in five years today and advance to their fourth AFC Championship game in franchise history. It will not be easy, in fact, this may be the Ravens toughest Divisional round matchup in their playoff history as they take on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the Mile High City today.

The Ravens are almost 10-point underdogs and when you factor in Manning’s nine game winning streak vs. Baltimore and the 34-17 thumping the Broncos handed the Ravens in Week 15 at Baltimore, it is surprising the Ravens aren’t almost two touchdown dogs.

However, of the four remaining teams playing on the road this weekend for a chance to get one step closer to New Orleans, only the Ravens have recent experience in knocking off a No.1 seed at home to advance to the conference championship game.

In fact, Ray Lewis has been a member of two Ravens teams that accomplished the feat, both against the Tennessee Titans. Lewis’ scampered 50-yards for a touchdown after he took (literally) a pass intended for Titans RB Eddie George and sealed the Ravens 24-17 win setting up a trip to Oakland for the AFC Title game.

In 2008, during Joe Flacco’s rookie year, the Ravens again traveled to the Music City and beat the No.1 seeded Titans despite being outgained (391-211) in total yards and dominated in time of possession. However, the Ravens made the Titans pay for several very costly red zone turnovers, as Ravens kicker Matt Stover booted a 43-yard field goal with just 57 seconds left in the contest to give his team the win. The Ravens lost the next week in Pittsburgh for the right to play in the Super Bowl.

The Denver Broncos are 13-3 all-time at home in the playoffs but two of those losses did come in games following a bye week. While those loses have nothing to do with the Broncos team taking the field today, head coach John Fox thought it was important enough to remind his team of them this week.

Since the NFL moved to a 12-team format in 1990, No.1 seeds in the AFC are 13-9 during the Divisional round of the playoffs. Peyton Manning led teams are 1-1 in this spot. Manning and his Colts lost to the Steelers 21-18 back in 2005 and defeated the Ravens 20-3 during Flacco’s second season in the league.

The Ravens are a surprisingly much different team than they were a few short weeks ago when Denver beat them at M&T Bank Stadium.

Statistically speaking, the Broncos are a far better team in team in terms of numbers. They ranked fourth in total offense and second in total defense. The Broncos were second in the leagues in points scored (481/ 30.1 ppg) and fourth in total points allowed (289/ 18.1ppg).

The Ravens will need a complete effort today on both sides of the ball plus special teams. A blocked field goal for a touchdown, as Anthony Mitchell did for the Ravens during the 2000 Divisional contest in Tennessee or a little bit of luck can’t hurt either.

While every game has its share of important keys, here are five that I believe cannot be compromised if the Ravens are to advance and avoid being “On the Clock” for April’s draft.

No.5 Bernard Pierce must be an even bigger part of the offense this week in Denver.

When you saw Bernard Pierce to start the season, chances are Ray Rice had just carried the ball on two or three consecutive plays and broke off a big run. He needed a breather and in came the Pierce.  The Ravens rookie running back whom they drafted in the third round (84th overall) of last April’s draft averaged just 4.2 yards per carry during his first NFL games.

He benefited from the Ravens blow out of the Oakland Raiders as he picked up 10 carries in garbage time and following a two carry eight-yard performance in Pittsburgh, Pierce’s workload has increased. Since Week 10, Pierce has 79 carries and has not wasted his chances. He has two 100-yard games (Giants and Colts) and has become a big play maker with his deceptive speed between the tackles.

With three rushes over 20 yards, and two over 40, Pierce has the Ravens longest rush from scrimmage in four of the last six games. At times, Pierce looks like smoke through a key hole the way he picks his running lane. Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has noticed this about Pierce and has begun to utilize it. Since Caldwell took over (Week15) Pierce has rushed for 335 of his 635 yards including the post season.

Using Pierce and Rice in the backfield at the same time for a few plays would a great new wrinkle for the Broncos stout defense to have to adjust to. I almost have to believe that is in the cards today especially when you consider that Ray Rice, as well as several other prominent Ravens players; have never played in the altitude of the Mile High City. No.27 runs hard on every play, but a lack of oxygen can tire you out very quickly. Pro-Bowl fullback Vonta Leach has been hobbled with ankle and knee injuries so how effective, or how long he can play is anyone’s guess.

How or if Caldwell uses the two running backs together is yet to be determined. I do not get the sense that Caldwell strokes egos, and it was telling the Pierce was on the field to close out the Colts and not Ray Rice. There is no running back controversy in Baltimore but one has to wonder if the franchise tag would have stuck with Rice through this season if the Ravens could have seen the future in Pierce. They did in a sense and that is why he should be a big part of the offense today. He has to be if they are going to advance.  

Ray Rice had one carry for two yards in his first playoff appearance during his rookie season. However, in his first chance to make an impact for the Ravens in the playoffs, Rice scored on the first play from scrimmage in New England. The 83-yard run led to a 24-point first quarter for the Ravens setting the tone for a 33-14 Baltimore beat down against Tom Brady. With Pierce's big run play making ability, it’s not out of the question to see him make a similar contribution today and if he does, the Ravens will win the game.

No. 4 BLITZING PEYTON MANNING IS A GAMBLE THE RAVENS CAN’T AFFORD NOT TO TAKE:

History says Broncos QB Peyton Manning will go down as one of  the two or three best signal callers to ever play the game, is numbers do not lie--------good or bad.  You will hear plenty of both as game time draws nearer but if the Ravens are going to stop the one that matters the most, his nine game winning streak against them, then they must blitz the future Hall of Fame passer and frequently.

Nothing worth accomplishing comes easy and this is likely to be the make or break decision for Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Peas today. Blitz Manning and hope you get to him in time or can at least disrupt his timing, or sit back and try to cover receivers like Demaryius Thomas, with whom. Manning has a 125.1 passer rating with Thomas, the best for any pair in the NFL. The Ravens secondary did an admirable job during the first contest by limiting Manning to just 204 passing yards, his lowest output of  the season. Eric Decker account for 65 percent of Manning’s yards in the first meeting with 133 receiving yards, including a 51-yard TD that caught Carey Williams and Ed Reed flatfooted.

The Ravens pressured Manning in the game sacking him twice but that number needs to double today. The Ravens have the personnel to get to Manning.

Paul Kruger has really bounced back during the second half of the season. He has 11.5 sacks (including post season) this season and is now heading towards a huge payday this off-season as an unrestricted free agent. Last week, Kruger destroyed anyone the Colts tried to use on him. Winston Justice, Bradley Sowell and Anthony Castonzo were no match.  According to Pro Football focus, Kruger has a sack, hit or hurry 15.3 percent of all pass rushing plays this season, that is the best amongst 3-4 OLB’s.

Also  according to the Focus, Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe playing for an injured Ray Lewis was the NFL’s most efficient ILB at harassing QB’s with 18 pressures on 79 blitzes. Ellerbe is still starting with Lewis back and the Broncos will need to account for him.

Despite the fact that Ray Lewis can no longer cover the broad side of a barn with red paint, the Ravens defense is different with him in there rushing the QB. According to ESPN Stats and Info, in the first six games this season with Ray Lewis, the Ravens sent five or more pass rushers on 39.6 percent of opponent drop backs. Only five teams used added pressure more often during that span. 

In 10 games without Lewis, the Ravens utilized five or more pass rushers on 25.5 percent of opponent drop backs, less often than 20 other teams.  In the first six games, the Ravens defense did not allow a touchdown pass and held opposing quarterbacks to a Total QBR below 20 when sending at least five pass rushers.  In the 10 games without Lewis, the defense gave up five touchdown passes and no interceptions when blitzing. During that span, only six other teams failed to intercept at least one pass when bringing added pressure. All six of those teams missed the playoffs. 

Behind of the leagues younger offensive lines, Denver allowed a league low 26 sacks (21) hits and hurries this year. Kruger and Ellerbe will need help getting to Manning and that includes great coverage down field. It is unlikely that Corey Graham will duplicate his performance on D. Thomas from the first game. Graham held Denver’s top wideout to four receptions for 13 yards, but if he can keep Thomas under 50 yards and the Ravens secondary is physical up front consistently, Manning could struggle.

Speaking of struggling, remember when the knock on Peyton was he couldn't’t win the big one? No.18 is human and has struggled mightily at times in the post season. He is 9-10 in the playoffs and is 0-3 when the temperature is 40 degrees or less at kickoff. Since 2003, Manning is 9-7 in the postseason but during those seven losses has seven TD’S with eight INT’s and 61.6 rating to match.

Oh by the way, the temperature in Denver today is 15 degrees with a wind chill of five degrees.

No.3 YES, IT GETS OLD TO SAY BUT JOE FLACCO MUST STEP UP AND HE CANNOT WAIT UNTIL THE SECOND HALF TO DO IT TODAY.

Today is payday for Ravens QB Joe Flacco. He is an unrestricted free agent following the season and today, No.5 can either make elite money, or accept what his true worth in the NFL is right now, probably just on the outside of the top 10 looking in.

Flacco's contract expires at the end of the season. Before the 2012 season started, Flacco was essentially pressed into saying he thought he was an elite quarterback who demanded elite money. Joe Cool threw for a career-high 3,817 yards, 22 touchdowns (second most in his career) and tied a career low with 10 interceptions. He increased in touchdown total by two from last season and decreased his interception by the same amount. The problem is, much---much more was expected of the fifth year signal caller and the biggest reason Flacco still has his critics and deservedly so is his inconsistent play.

In the span of one week, Flacco went from the second or third best QB in the post season to seventh this weekend and I’m not sure many would choose Flacco over a young Collin Kaepernick. of the eight remaining starters in the post season, Flacco has the seventh-best QB rating, and 49ers starter Colin Kaepernick hasn't registered enough attempts to be rated.

You will rarely hear writers or broadcasters lay blame for one loss on the shoulders of one player but I have no problem doing that when it comes to Ravens last game with Denver. Flacco was the difference and not in a good way. He had a quarterback rating of 34.9 after 30 minutes, completed only 20 of 40 passes for 254 yards in the game and finished with a QB rating of 76.5.

The biggest stat from that game is two, which represent the two first half turnovers that led to a 17-0 Broncos lead. The 98-yard Pick six he threw literally just before half time was a 14-point play. Instead of 10-7 Broncos with hope on the horizon, it was 17-0 and game over.

There is no doubt Flacco must start strong today. I am tired of hearing about all of his wins and if I sound like an ungrateful Ravens fan then so be it. With his win last week, Flacco is 60-30 since his arrival into the NFL as a first round pick from Delaware.

The Ravens are not Broncos with Flacco completing five passes 20 or more yards as he did last week against the Colts. The Denver pass rush and other factors such as weather will not allow it, but as he showed during the big Divisional win over Tennessee during his rookie year, it only takes one. What Flacco must be today is clutch and in control. Clutch is finding Ray Rice underneath for five yards instead of the possibility of a big play or second and 10. In control is not panicking as Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil bear down on him. Flacco must stand in the pocket and know he is going to be hit while delivering the ball.

Elite quarterbacks do it and six of them, with five Super Bowl titles between them will at some time this weekend. Flacco must join the party if he wants the money or something comparable to that of Peyton Manning (1), Tom Brady (3), Aaron Rodgers (1) and Matt Ryan. While Ryan is not quite elite, he is pushing the envelope and has pulled ahead of Flacco in terms of who is better from the 08 Draft. Today’s game is payday for Joe Flacco, if the Ravens win and he plays well, he gets one step closer to elite money, if they lose, it will be an interesting off season around the Castle as the franchise decides if Flacco is just that, their franchise quarterback.

Asking Flacco to match his AFC Title game performance from last year is asking a lot today, but his team needs him to do exactly that. It is almost unfair to ask Flacco to do this especially when you consider that Peyton Manning has struggled in the playoffs as well. Manning was 3-6 in his first nine post season appearances, which helps put into perspective how hard it is to win this time of the year, especially on the road.

With that said, Flacco’s inconsistent play this season is a big reason why the Ravens must once again go on the road to reach the Super Bowl. There is no top 10 defense to bail out the Ravens offense this time in the playoffs. There will be no getting outgained by an almost 2-to-1 margin and beating the No.1 seed today.

Flacco can erase it all today, all of his doubters for at least another week by stepping up today, if he does not, the Ravens don’t stand much of a chance of winning, no matter how much they keep Manning in check.

No .4 THE RAVENS MUST CONTAIN THE BRONCOS PASS RUSH OF VON MILLER AND ELVIS DUMERVILLE.

When Dan Patrick and Keith Olberman used to host Sports Center together, one of their catch lines about a player or team was, “You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them”. No truer words have been spoken when it comes to the task for the Ravens offensive line today.

The Denver Broncos Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller and Pro Bowl defensive end Elvis Dumervil simply know how to get to the passer. Von Miller is proving to be everything and more in his second season in the NFL. The 2011 defensive rookie of the year is an athletic freak of nature. The last defensive player that possessed such athletically freakish traits was Jevonn Kerse but he could not stay healthy. So far, health is not a concern for but he is hurting opposing defenses and in some cases, crippling them.

 What makes Miller such an anomaly is his combined strength and speed. The second overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft by the Broncos from what is now Johnny Manziel University (Texas A&M), is twice as fast as the guys that are trying to block him and just as fast as the guys he’s trying to tackle at times. At 6-foot-3, 237 pounds, with a 40-yard dash in the high 4.4 to low 4.5 ranges, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate led the Broncos with 18.5 sacks and six forced fumbles this season.

The angles Miller takes on his blockers in terms of getting low to the ground is unprecedented. He generally leaves offensive lineman with little chance to stop him requiring teams to provide help for their tackles. If you do manage to shut him down, which the Ravens did. Baltimore’s offensive line held Miller without a sack for only the second time this season and limited him to only two tackles.

His sack counterpart, Elvis Dumervil is compared to Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison. Dumervil is considered an elite bull rusher who uses a spin move as well as speed to sack the QB. He had 11 QB takedowns during the season and did register a sack of Flacco back in Week 15.

Miller generally lines up on the right side, so that means right tackle, Michael Oher is going to need a lot of help. As a team,
the Broncos rank third against the pass and led the NFL with 52 sacks during the regular season. What is even more impressive in the thin air of Denver is when the Broncos get after the passer at times. Thirty eight of the 52 league leading sacks came in the second half of games, including 22 in the fourth quarter alone.

It only took 16 weeks but head coach John Harbaugh has let LT Bryant McKinney out of the proverbial doghouse, which neither insist he was in. The Ravens need to duplicate their performance from a week ago when Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were limited in production. The two entered the contest with nine career sacks against the Ravens but only Mathis registered one last week.

The Ravens have what is arguably, their best offensive line playing at the right time. McKinney, rookie left guard Kelechi Osemele, C Matt Birk, RG Marshall Yanda and RT Michael Oher have the talent to contain the Broncos pass rush. I’d be foolish to say the Ravens must stop them cold, its just not going to happen, but they need to  limit their damage and our above key (Joe Flacco) to the game must be smart with the football, both in the pocket, as well as when he releases it.

No.5 THE RAVENS MUST PLAY SMART MISTAKE FREE FOOTBALL, AND STICK WITH THE GAME PLAN OF RUNNING TO SET UP THE PASS! AND OH BY THE WAY, IN THE PLAYOFFS, THE INTANGIBLES MATTER.

Perhaps the most disappointing issue surrounding the Ravens this season was the amount of undisciplined mistakes they made. Head Coach John Harbaugh has always struck me as a fair but firm type of leader but this suggests he may be losing some of his firmness and it cost his football team.

This season, the Ravens were second in the NFL with 121 penalties but amassed the most penalty yards by over the length of a football field. Baltimore had 1127 penalty yards this season compared to 1005 by the Rams. Harbaugh’s bunch was at it again last week, as they posted an NFL worst nine yellow flags on Wild Card weekend.

The biggest reason for the disparity was the 14 unnecessary roughness penalties, which are 15 yards a clip (no pun intended). This simply cannot happen today. Peyton Manning is likely to generate enough first downs on his own without Haloti Ngata hitting Manning late or Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed tackling with their facemask.

Joe Flacco is likely to throw one or two ill-advised deep balls leading to second or third and long. Michael Oher or Anquan Boldin do not need to make it second and 20 or third and 25. Despite converting a fourth and 29 this season, I am sure the odds of doing it again are as likely as Oher not actually committing a penalty today.

The Ravens had a great season in terms of turnover differential. They CANNOT TURN THE FOOTBALL OVER TODAY, PERIOD! The Ravens committed just 16 turnovers in 2012, producing a franchise single-season low. Ray Rice fumbled twice last week and it didn’t hurt the Ravens, there can be no more chest thumping saying my bad, just hold onto the ball Ray Rice and all will be fine.

The key ingredients to making a deep run in January are to have the capacity to run the football, create and do not commit turnovers and play great defense. The third used to be a given which is why the Ravens must execute when running the football. Keeping Manning off the field will be paramount to Baltimore’s success today and there is no reason they cannot do it with Rice and Pierce in the backfield and a healthier offensive line up front ready to go. In Week 15, the Broncos dominated up front. The Ravens averaged 2.9 yards per carry to finish with 56 rushing yards on 19 runs.

However, it must be said that the Ravens were depleted up front, as the offensive line was missing Pro Bowl right offensive guard Marshal Yanda and tight end Ed Dickson. They are without question better options than Jah Reid and Billy Bajema for the Ravens in run blocking.

Former Ravens defensive lineman Justin Bannan does a great job for Denver and ties up blocks allowing linebacker Wesley Woodyard to clog holes and make tackles.

PREDICITION:

The Ravens must be consistent and at times flawless today. They have shown in the past during the post season that they can be both. You will know early on which Ravens team shows up to play. The Ravens must start fast and score first in this one. Allowing the Broncos to tee off on Flacco if has to throw to get back into the game is not a good predicament. I do think the Ravens will be ready and focused. I do think the weather will matter and yes, even affect the way Manning plays. Remember, history says so!

The Raven and Broncos will put on a classic defensive battle in the Mile High city today. You will think you are watching the old Orange Crush vs. an early 2000’s Ravens defense. Ultimately in the end, Joe Flacco delivers, remember, he has to. Look for an interception from Ed Reed. Three of Reeds eight post-season thefts have come against Manning. The Ravens may not get a miracle play like Anthony Mitchell provided in 2000 with the Al Del Greco missed field goal touchdown but they do pull off the miracle in the Mile High City today.

RAVENS 24 BRONCOS 15