The Baltimore Ravens assured that their future Hall of Fame middle linebacker would have yet one more last ride. The ride will now require boarding an airplane as the Baltimore Ravens travel to the Mile High City to take on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Saturday afternoon.
For the fifth consecutive season, Lewis and company will at least play in the AFC Divisional round of the playoffs. I would not actually be telling the truth if I said I did not expect the Ravens to be in this position despite losing four of their final five games. I whole-heartedly did. What I do not know is what will happen on Saturday or even which Ravens team is going to get off the plane in Denver.
Will it be the one that went 1-4 in December losing two of the four on the game’s final play and the fourth with the tail end of the depth chart? Or will it be the one that went 4-0 in November and blew out the defending Super Bowl champions with 533 total yards of offense while holding Eli-te and the NY Giants to just 186 total yards in the Ravens only win down the stretch?
Let’s all hope it is not the Ravens team that was blown out at home 34-17 by the same team and quarterback they are traveling to play this weekend.
The only thing that seems to missing from Head Coach John Harbaugh’s five-year Charm City resume is an appearance in the Super Bowl. After winning his second straight AFC North Division title in 2012, Harbs became just the third coach in NFL history (since 1970 merger) to guide his team to the postseason in each of his first five seasons (2008-12), joining Bill Cowher and Chuck Knox.
The Ravens’ six playoff wins over the past five seasons rank as the NFL’s most. Four of the Ravens’ victories have come on the road, which ties the NY Jets for the NFL’s most. He is the only head coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first four and with Sunday’s 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts, five seasons.
However, Harbaugh’s teams have lost in mid to late January in almost every conceivable way. Wide left, dropped passes, turnovers, pick sixes, and receivers getting behind coverage late to name a few of the ways Baltimore has allowed teams to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
To make the losses sting a little more during Harbaugh’s reign, all four of Baltimore’s post-season defeats over the past four seasons have come at the hands of the team that represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. One of those teams, the 2010 Steelers, captured their sixth Super Bowl Championship.
If Harbaugh is going to finally reach the Promised Land, which this year is in New Orleans, then Sunday was the easy part for Baltimore. While the Colts were the feel good story of the year in the NFL, future Hall of Famer and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis stole the emotional momentum back from Indy early last week with his announcement that these playoffs would be his “last ride”.
Losing at M&T Bank Stadium to a team laden with rookies and one that once called Baltimore home only to sneak out of the Charm City in the middle of the night way back in 1984, breaking hearts and causing grown men to cry, was simply not an option------- Not even almost 28 years later.
Luckily, the Ravens only allowed the former Baltimore franchise to stay close for a half before outscoring them 14-3 in the final 30 minutes. The defense, led by No.52 and his team high 13 tackles held the Colts without a touchdown. It was only the second time this season that Indianapolis failed to score in double figures.
The task ahead of Harbaugh, Lewis and QB Joe Flacco, as well as the rest of the Baltimore Ravens is a daunting one now.
On six days rest, the Ravens must now travel to an oxygen starved altitude to play a team with a future hall of fame quarterback, who oh by the way has only won nine straight games against them, including a Week 15, 34-17 decision in Baltimore. All of this on top of the fact that the Denver Broncos have won 11 straight games.
The Broncos average margin of victory during the 11 wins has been 15.1 points, and none of the games has been closer than a touchdown. That would explain the fact that Baltimore is almost a 10-point underdog on Saturday.
So let the over analyzing begin, Lewis vs. Manning---- Ravens vs. Broncos. Here are 10 facts and opinions with a few bold predictions to match.
TIME OF POSSESSION AND RUNNING THE FOOTBALL, KEYS TO A ROAD PLAYOFF WIN:
FACT: At Half time, the Ravens had 188 total yards of offense but racked up 253 in the second half to set a franchise-record of 441 yards of total offense. (172 rushing and 269 passing). That beat their previous mark of 398 in last year’s AFC Championship at New England.
Opinion: The Ravens offense must figure out a way to start much faster than they did on Sunday this Saturday afternoon in Denver. The Colts actually out gained the Ravens in the first half with 25 more yards on Sunday. This is still an obvious sign that the Ravens offense is far from championship caliber when you consider the Colts defense came into the game ranked 26 in the NFL. Flacco and company must be crisp from the first snap and cannot squander red zone opportunities as they did during the game’s first 30 minutes (1-3).
FACT: The Ravens had 32 touchdown drives of 60-or-more yards this season, tying several teams for the NFL’s fifth most. Ten of those touchdowns were scored on drives that began inside their own 20-yard line, tying (Was.) for the NFL’s fourth-most TDs. (NE was first with 18, NO second with 13 and Sea. third with 12.)
OPINION: Patience, patience, patience. It is great to see the long ball used with effectiveness. Nevertheless, wining playoff games on the road means you must sustain drives, which eats up the clock. It is often said that the best defense is not to have to play any defense at all. While I love seeing No.52 back on the field, I like him better when he and the rest his defense are watching from the sideline, as Joe Flacco leads a long Ravens touchdown drive. That would also mean Peyton Manning is watching instead of playing as well. And Manning cannot beat you if he is standing on the sideline Jim Caldwell!
BOLD PREDICTION: The Ravens find a way to incorporate Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce into the backfield for a few plays. As a result, the Ravens offense confuses the Broncos stout defense and actually sustains a few drives allowing the Ravens to win the time of possession battle in this game.
FACT: The Colts entered Sunday’s game ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing defense in 2012, allowing an average of 138 rushing yards per game. In fact, since Ray Rice and Joe Flacco joined the team in 2008, the Ravens have a perfect 20-0 regular-season record against teams that finished that season among the NFL's bottom eight teams in rushing defense. Baltimore won 14 of those games by at least 10 points. The Ravens stayed true to form yesterday rushing for 172 yards, and winning by 15 points.
OPINION: The Broncos third ranked rushing defense held the Ravens to just 56-yards as Ray Rice had just 12 carries for 38 yards in Week 15. However, the Ravens played seven games against six of the top 10 rushing defenses in the league (Redskins, Patriots, Broncos, Steelers (2), Texans, and Chargers) and averaged 117.1 yards per game.
BOLD PREDICTION: The Ravens will run the ball for at least 150 yards on Saturday.
THE PASS RUSH AND No.18:
FACT: With three sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 12 passes defensed, an improving Ravens defense put constant pressure on Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The former Stanford QB was 28-for-54 for 288 yards with one interception. The defense set the tone early and gave Luck something to think about all day long. In the first half alone, Luck had none of his namesake at all against the fired up Ravens “D”. He was sacked twice, knocked down five times and hurried eight times.
OPINION: If there is one big question mark surrounding the Broncos, it is their offensive line. Guard Chris Kuper and offensive tackle Ryan Clady are dealing with injuries and protecting quarterback Peyton Manning will be the No. 1 issue the Broncos face.
The Broncos were one of the leagues best at protecting their late model franchise QB this season, as they surrendered just 21 sacks. However, they allowed 19 of them in games Kuper did not play on offense. If the Ravens have any shot of slowing Manning and stopping him from winning a tenth in a row against them, then they must duplicate their pass rush from this past Sunday. The Ravens limited Manning to just 204 passing yards in Week 15, his lowest output of the season.
BOLD PREDICTION: Manning will make the Ravens pay for blitzing him on a few occasions but it will not be enough to beat them after 60 minutes of play. If the Ravens do not have at least four sacks of Manning, the Broncos will advance.
FACT: (The Ray Lewis factor and blitzing Manning): After missing all of the 2011 season recovering from his third neck surgery, Broncos QB Peyton Manning used the 2012 season as his personal rehabilitation center. Despite the fact that defenses blitzed Manning 26 percent more in 2012 than they did in 2010, No.18 was as good as ever, if not better.
All Manning did was respond with a QB Rating 12 percent higher than it was in 2010 vs. the blitz. According to NFL.com, conventional wisdom says Manning is dinking-and-dunking opponents to death. The numbers again say something different. His average completion is actually going further in the air (6.91 yards) than it did in 2010 (6.29 yards.) His average pass attempt actually is slightly shorter this year, but he has been more successful by far when he does go deep.
What about his ugly looking deep passes this season. Manning is averaging 14.7 yards per attempt on throws that go over 20 yards in the air, which is up drastically from 9.8 YPA in 2010. He's completing a far higher percentage when he tries deep passes: 44.9 percent to 26 percent.
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.
OPINION: The Baltimore Ravens have nothing to lose and as they did vs. Andrew Luck on Sunday, the Ravens defense needs to go after Manning early and often, especially with Ray Lewis back in the middle. Remember those playoff games in New England when Bill Belichick was successful vs. Manning and the Colts because he went after Manning with constant pressure.
Since the 2003 post season, Manning is 9-7 but has just seven touchdowns with eight interceptions during his playoff losses. With a 61.6 rating during those seven losses, Manning does not rebound well from being pressured in the cold.
BOLD PREDICTION: Ray Lewis has not fared well head-to-head vs. Manning in terms of wins. He may win his share of the “chess matches” during games between two of the best at their respective positions, but with nine victories in a row, it is Manning that gets to call checkmate most of the time. That changes on Saturday as Lewis registers two sacks of his own vs. No.18. CHECKMATE PEYTON!
THE COLD HARD TRUTH ABOUT MANNING:
FACT: Dealing with weather has always been an issue for Peyton Manning when he was playing indoors for the Colts. He is 0-3 in playoff games played below 50 degrees, and has just one win (in six tries) when it is below 60 degrees. Manning is obviously not the same player in those conditions. In an effort to counter the cold weather in Denver recently, Manning has been wearing a glove on his right hand for the first time in his career. Home-field advantage is a great asset for a team like the Broncos playing at a high altitude with a great fan base, but Manning’s history in cold weather isn’t all that promising moving forward. In fact, Manning has a losing record in the Divisional round of the playoffs (3-4).
OPINION: Experience does matter this time of the season. If any team is capable of pulling this upset on the road it is the Ravens. Just ask the 2008 Titans (13-3), the 09 Patriots (10-6) and the 10’ KC Chiefs (10-6). All lost at home to the Ravens in the playoffs. The Titans were a No.1 seed in the AFC at the time and coming off a bye-week.
BOLD PREDICTION: When you see the word prediction, you think weather. On Saturday, the weather at game time in Denver will be a very cold 20 degrees with a 20 percent chance of snow; this is a good sign for the Ravens.
WHAT ABOUT THE GAMES OTHER SIGNAL CALLER?
FACT: Joe Flacco is always full of good and bad facts with the opinions to match, consider some of these facts from Sundays game and my take on them below. Flacco completed seven passes for 20 or more yards on Sunday, matching the second-highest total in any game of his NFL career in either the regular season or the playoffs. He completed nine passes for at least 20 yards in the Ravens' 31-30 win over the Patriots in September. Flacco also averaged 23.5 yards per completion vs. the Colts, which was the 2nd-highest rate in a playoff game in NFL history. Finally, Flacco had only 12 completions for 282 passing yards in Sunday's win. The only other quarterback in NFL postseason history with that many yards on that few completions in a playoff game is Tim Tebow, who had 316 on 10 completions against the Steelers in Denver last January.
OPINION: On the surface, these may seem like a great accomplishment but when Flacco becomes overconfident on the long ball, the Ravens offense and defense for that matter pays dearly at times.
For one, Baltimore lost the time of possession battle at home in the playoffs despite outrushing the Colts by 20 yards. They did not lose the T.O.P by a little bit either, try to the tune of almost 16-minutes. In fact, the Ravens only won the time of possession battle six times all season.
According to Pro Football Focus, with 17.3 percent of his throws traveling 20 or more yards during the 2012 season, Joe Flacco threw the ball down field more often than any quarterback did. In addition, the Ravens set a new franchise record with 41 completions of 25-plus yards. Pro Football Focus says that on those deep throws, he threw 11 touchdowns, tied for most in the NFL, and was the only qualifying quarterback with zero interceptions. But according to ESPN Stats and Info, Flacco had the NFL's worst completion percentage (40.1) on throws of more than 10 yards down field through Week 14, when Cam Cameron was fired. Maybe it is a coincidence, but it appears that the Ravens might have felt that Flacco was going deep a little too often. Flacco’s average yards per target is 7.6 yards down field under Jim Caldwell, down from 9.8 under Cameron.
It is obvious that Caldwell allowed Flacco to air it out a little more this past Sunday but the Broncos aren’t the Colts and if Denver has the ball for 37-minutes to the Ravens 22 minutes this Saturday, I assure you the scoreboard won’t reflect a Ravens victory.
The Ravens offense must get back to the intermediate passing game they used during the Giants win. While the big throws to Boldin were nice to watch, the 27-yard catch and run TD by RB Ray Rice just before the half versus the Giants was equally as effective and produced the same amount of points.
Not to mention if Rice only picked up five yards it is still second or third and five yards to go for a fresh set of downs. If the ball falls incomplete to Boldin on any of the long pass plays, it is second or third and long.
BOLD PREDICTION: Joe Flacco handled himself very well as he went head-to head against another living QB legend last year in the AFC Championship game. In fact, Flacco outplayed three time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady at home in New England. Flacco will bring his “A” game to Denver. He will be just as good if not better than he was in the AFC title contest. By even better I mean he will duplicate his numbers without the costly turnover.
DEFENSE—DEFENSE—DEFENSE AND ED REED:
FACT: The Ravens have allowed 13.7 points per game in postseason play (18 games), the NFL’s best playoff mark ever. Limiting the Colts to only 9 points, it marked the ninth playoff game Baltimore has allowed 10-or-fewer points since 2000. Amazingly, no other team has more than four such games during this span. Bending but not breaking has also been a philosophy of the banged up unit this season.
Finishing the regular season with the NFL’s No. 2 red zone defense, Baltimore’s unit remained stout again inside “the red,” not allowing the Colts to score a TD on three trips inside the 20.
OPINION: Trading field goals with the Ravens in the playoffs is a dangerous proposition, even for Peyton Manning. Manning has a tendency to force the ball down deep and this is where the Ravens could take advantage. Manning has been known to throw a pick six or two in his day when it matters during a game. Just ask his current teammate, Tracy Porter. Porter you will remember intercepted Manning in SB XLIV and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown. The score ended the Colts' hopes of a comeback and sealed New Orleans' first Super Bowl victory.
Ed Reed, who has eight interceptions in 12 career post-season games, is overdue. Reed’s post season INTs rank as the most among active NFL players and tie (Lester Hayes) for second most all time (record is 9 by three different players). Reed’s 162 return yards stand fourth all time, while he also has 40 tackles (34 solo) and 19 PD in postseason play.
Of Reed’s eight playoff thefts, three have come against Manning. Reed will look to cash in on Saturday, as No. 20 may also be playing his final game in a Ravens uniform if the Broncos win.
BOLD PREDICITION: Ed Reed will get another post-season pick of Peyton (say that 10 times). While I do not see it going for six points, I do see it leading to a big Ravens touchdown, perhaps the game winner.
FACT: OLB Terrell Suggs has posted 10 sacks in 12 career playoff games, including a team-high five during the 2010 playoffs. Dating back to 2008, Suggs’ 10 QB drops rank first in NFL postseason play, while his 69 yards lost on those sacks also stand No. 1.
OLB Paul Kruger, a second-round draft pick in 2009 and an unrestricted free agent following the season led the Ravens with nine sacks during the year. From games 9-13, he recorded a sack in five-straight contests (totaling 6.5 sacks) to tie a Ravens’ franchise record for most consecutive games with a sack. He had 2.5 sacks five quarterback hits, one forced fumble, one pass deflection and one tackle for loss on Sunday vs. the Colts.
OPINION: Suggs was missing in action during Sunday’s Wild Card win over the Colts. He had two assists on tackles, none solo and stated following the game that his Achilles was really bothering him. If the Ravens are going to win this matchup, Suggs must jump off the side of the milk carton and onto the back of Peyton Manning with Kruger. While Kruger had a great game Sunday, Suggs taking down Manning on one or two occasions would really fire up the Ravens defense and force Manning to use his head like a swivel looking for No.55 and No.99. If the Ravens are going to win on Sunday, each must have at least one sack vs. the Broncos signal caller.
BOLD PREDICTION: The magic number is four sacks of Peyton but I foresee a scenario that allows the Ravens to get six with Lewis and Suggs having two apiece. If Reed does not produce a pick, and this is a really bold prediction, look for Kruger to snag it, as he drops back in coverage late and Peyton does not see him.
PROTECTING THE FOOTBALL IS PARAMOUNT:
FACT: The Ravens committed just 16 turnovers in 2012, producing a franchise single-season low. In their playoff history, the Ravens have dominated the turnover battle, registering a +19 mark in 18 games. Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have forced an NFL-best 30 turnovers in 10 playoff games.
OPINION: Suffice to say, the Ravens must not turn the football over on Sunday and in turn must protect it. Another 98-yard pick six by the Broncos in this one and that likely means the end of the season. During the Ravens nine franchise post-season losses they are a minus nine in those games and minus five when losing in the playoffs under Harbaugh. If Ray Rice loses two fumbles Saturday, beating on his chest and mouthing “my bad” simply will not cut it.
Joe Flacco must protect the ball and the Ravens must try to force a Denver fumble every chance they get. However, this is not in lieu of actually tackling the ball carrier, as we have seen throughout the season Ed Reed and Carey Williams. Denver running backs have put the ball on the ground this season at times.
The Broncos lost 14 fumbles this season. Only six teams lost more fumbles than that, and none of the six made the playoffs. Former Ravens running back Willis McGahee, who is back at practice but not playing Saturday, has four of the running backs' seven lost fumbles this season. Lance Ball, Knowshon Moreno and rookie Ronnie Hillman each have one lost fumble.
Moreno, who beat up the Ravens with 115 yards in Week 15, lost his fumble Sept. 17 in Atlanta and did not play in the next eight games before being reinserted as the team's starter following McGahee's knee injury. Moreno has not lost a fumble in his 130 carries over the last six games.
Hillman lost his fumble this past Sunday against the Chiefs and did not carry the ball for the remainder of the game.
BOLD PREDICTION: I like the Ravens chances as long as they come out of the tunnel loose and ready to play. I like the Ravens chances to catch a Broncos team that may be playing a little over their heads, even with Peyton Manning at QB. The Broncos played in a weak AFC West division and their strength of schedule was just .457 this season. Only the Bengals, Colts and Falcons played easier schedules and while all three made the playoffs two are gone after Wild Card Weekend.
The Broncos played just five teams with winning records and lost to three of them (Falcons, Patriots & Texans). They played just one team (Ravens) with a winning record over the final eight weeks of the regular season.
HOW TO LISTEN IN ON THE BEST NFL COVERAGE:
Be sure to listen to THE NFL SHOW ON THE FANSPEAK RADIO NETWORK Thursday night starting at 8:30 as yours truly and Stephen Shoup of Fanspeak.com break down every NFL Divisional playoff game matchup. Steve and I will be back on Friday night to host THE FRIDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL FRENZY, also at 8:30. In addition, on Saturday at 2:00 p.m.. we will bring you the BALTIMORE RAVENS PREGAME SHOW PRESENTED BY FANSPEAK.COM.
Be sure to check back right her tomorrow for a comprehensive scouting report of the game, complete with film study and stats to match. I will also have my “5 KEYS TO A RAVENS VICTORY” on Saturday morning.
Also, with the NHL lockout ending, do not miss my special Washington Capitals preview articles, that will start appearing on Sunday morning on Capitals Corner.com.