By Rich Kurtzman
Are you ready for some playoff football?
When the Broncos and Ravens met in Baltimore in Week 15, Denver dictated the game’s pace and physicality and walked away with the 34-17 win. Many fans think the men in orange and blue will be able to easily do so once again, even though both big-time linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are back in the middle of that Ravens defense in time for this Divisional Round playoff game, and if they follow the same recipe for success of the last matchup, Denver should win a close battle Saturday night.
Let’s take a look at the three keys to the game for Denver today:
1. Stop Ray Rice
It’s a task that sounds much easier than it is.
One month ago, the Denver D shut down Ray Rice, making him a complete non-factor with only 38 yards on the game. The Ravens couldn’t run the ball because the Broncos were swarming the ball-carrier, forcing Joe Flacco to pass more than he wanted to.
Rice is a rare running back; he stands only 5’8” tall, but he uses that low center of gravity to run through defenders by getting under their pad level and he’s also able to break the big run at any time. He also is very good at catching the ball out of the backfield, taking his one pass last week 47 yards to the Colts three yard line as his Ravens won easily 24-9.
Even though he’s an 1,100 yard rusher with nine touchdowns this season alone, Rice is susceptible to laying an egg, with five games of under 50 yards rushing in the regular season. And last week, he didn’t get off to a good postseason start, running for only 68 yards while losing two fumbles to Indianapolis.
If Denver stops Rice, they will almost certainly win.
2. Get Early Offense
The Broncos are the No. 2 scoring team in the NFL this season, at 30.1 points per game, but many times this season they’ve struggled to score early.
When Denver played Baltimore in Week 15, this was the case, as they went three-and-out on three of their first four drives, scoring only a field goal on the other drive in the first quarter. They could only manage one touchdown on offense in that first half, and if it weren’t for Chris Harris’ phenomenal 98-yard pick-six of Flacco, Denver would have likely only led 10-7 at halftime.
A best-case scenario for the Broncos would be to score a touchdown on their first drive, asserting themselves as the team to beat and control the game from the opening kickoff.
3. Play more physically
Baltimore will lay it all on the line today, Denver has to be willing to do the same.
When Ray Lewis announced the end of his 17-year career coming when his Ravens bow out of the playoffs, it gave his teammates an emotional lift, one they’ll likely be riding again this afternoon. Last week, Lewis led the team in tackles with 13, while the Ravens were all over Colts quarterback Andrew Luck the entire game.
Denver’s got to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball; stopping Ray Rice and also keeping Manning from getting hit and establishing a run game.
The Broncos ran for a total of 163 yards in Baltimore a month ago, Knowshon Moreno leading the way with 115 yards and a touchdown, as they pushed the Ravens’ front seven around. That was without Lewis and Suggs, and it will be interesting to see if Denver can enjoy that same success today with them in the lineup.
Defensively, the Broncos best in the NFL pass-rush needs to be on point once again as well, and if they start by slowing down Rice, hitting Flacco and forcing turnovers becomes key.
With the weather forecasted to be in the teens, the stage is set for a physical postseason football game today.
It kicks off at 2:30 p.m. MT and will be televised on CBS.
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Broncos news, see CBS Sports Denver.
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.