Peyton Manning returns to the playoffs today against the Baltimore Ravens. The Broncos will hope that they have a better performance than many of the teams that entered the playoffs with a 10 game winning streak (the Broncos have won 11 in a row since starting 2-3). The six other teams that have accomplished that since the 16 game schedule began are only 3-3 at home in the Divisional Round (San Diego lost twice, in 2006 and 2009, and the 1993 Oilers lost to the Chiefs.)
Denver won at Baltimore less than a month ago in dominating fashion, jumping to a 31-3 lead by the end of the third quarter. Turnovers swung that game early and it got out of hand, something that the Ravens will have to avoid. Joe Flacco fumbled on the opening possession on a quarterback sneak, and then with Baltimore down 10-0, threw a goal line interception that was returned 98 yards by Chris Harris.
For as much attention as Manning deservedly gets for his comeback in the orange uniform, it has been the defense led by Von Miller that has been just as vital. Denver ranks 2nd in yards per carry allowed, and has allowed only 5 rushing touchdowns, while also ranking 1st in net passing yards allowed.
Baltimore has gone from being overrated to about where they should be, a 10-6 team. They won 6 straight close games to get to 9-2 (ending with the Ray Rice fourth down game). Since then, they have lost 4 of 5, but three of those were close games. I’m not sure they are really playing worse, and it is just close game performance that has defined their season. Baltimore will likely not win a shootout against Denver because I don’t see Flacco consistently making plays against this defense. In the six prior playoff wins with Joe Flacco at quarterback, the opponent has scored 10.2 points on average. Baltimore’s hope is to muck it up, create some turnovers, and win a 20-17 type game. The Baltimore offense certainly cannot give up points like the last game. If Denver scores more than 20, it really will be Ray Lewis’ final game.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]