By Rich Kurtzman
Playoff football, where it’s win-or-go-home for every team.
Many times, postseason football is the fiercest you’ll see, simply because neither team wants to give up the dream of taking home a coveted Vince Lombardi trophy that comes with winning the Super Bowl. For a team like the Baltimore Ravens, it’s been a recipe for success. Although, many of the men that led those domineering defenses from a few years ago are noticeably older.
Yes, the Ravens have aged – Ray Lewis is in his 17th season and announced his retirement following this playoff run – but they still bring pressure and physicality on both sides of the ball. Lewis’ announcement during last week certainly elevated the play of his Baltimore brethren, and himself as well; he led the team in tackles with 13 total. It was a vintage performance from one of the most punishing middle linebackers to ever play the game. Fellow old man Ed Reed had five tackles, though he did drop an interception that made him look, well, old and 10th-year man Terrell Suggs only recorded two tackles.
Up front is where the Ravens really did their damage against Andrew Luck and the Colts, as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata recorded four tackles with a pass defended while pass-rushing linebacker Paul Kruger led the team with 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble. Baltimore runs a 3-4 front, but uses linebackers Kruger to rush the passer and Courtney Upshaw as a run-stopper. Back in Week 15, when the Broncos blew out the Ravens 34-17, Denver ran the ball effectively with Knowshon Moreno gaining 115 yards and a touchdown, and Jacob Hester scored on the ground as well. That was without Lewis and Suggs. Can the Broncos run the ball that well again?
Controlling the line of scrimmage will be as important on the opposite side of the ball as well, as Baltimore’s physicality translates in their ravaging run game. Ray Rice is one of the best backs in all of football – bouncing off and running through would-be tacklers with his low center of gravity – and Denver held him to a mere 38 yards rushing and three yards receiving a month ago. That was a huge accomplishment, even if people have grown accustomed to Denver’s D shutting down the run.
Notably, seven of Rice’s nine touchdowns have come at home this year, and it would really hurt the Ravens’ chances of winning if he can’t run one in. Baltimore, who averages 24.9 points per game, will have to play lights-out to out-score the Broncos’ second-highest scoring offense (30.1 PPG).
If the Broncos can contain Rice like they did in Week 15, Denver will walk away with another big time win. That’s because quarterback Joe Flacco is an inconsistent mess. What’s more, Flacco’s success is linked to his team’s. In wins, he’s thrown 14 touchdowns and four interceptions compared to the eight TDs and six INTs in losses. Even though he struggled early, Flacco performed well in the Ravens Wildcard win; while he only went 12-23, he did have 282 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers.
The last time he played the Broncos though, Flacco was a major reason why his team lost the game handily; not only did he throw the 98-yard pick-six to Chris Harris to put Denver up 17-0 before halftime, he fumbled once as well. Baltimore’s fifth-year QB has a problem holding onto the ball, fumbling nine times and losing four this year, and odds are good the Broncos’ No. 1 pass-rush (52 sacks) will not only sack Flacco, but make him fumble as well. Edge-rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combined for 29.5 sacks and 12 forced fumbles this regular season, and they need to continue that success for their Broncos to move on in the postseason.
Baltimore is a team that wants to play physical football – the ground game may be even more an emphasis if snow falls like it’s forecasted – and if Denver can out-physical the Ravens like they did in Week 15, the Broncos will be moving onto the AFC Championship.
Ravens – Broncos kicks off at 2:30 p.m. MT at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium and can be seen on CBS.
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Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Find more of Rich’s Denver Broncos pieces on Examiner.com.