No one in Baltimore is more critical of the Ravens than I am. I’m not satisfied with five straight trips to the postseason, I want a Super Bowl. I never say that Baltimore was two fluke plays away from winning the AFC Championship game last year because down the road no one will ever remember the team that got close. And I hate making excuses for a team that I think has a Super Bowl caliber roster.
Yet for some reason, I have a strange confidence about the Ravens divisional playoff matchup on Saturday in Denver against the Broncos. Vegas thinks I’m crazy and most of the national media thinks I’m nuts, but I’m just not sold on this Broncos team and think that Baltimore could be in just in the right spot for an upset.
More so than in any other sport, football is all about momentum. A postseason bye week is fantastic for resting guys that have been banged up throughout the marathon 16 week season, but it also completely change a team’s season-long flow at the most critical of times.
Back in 2006, the 13-3 Ravens welcomed the Colts to Baltimore in the divisional playoff round after the franchise’s first postseason bye week. The well rested defense kept Peyton Manning out of the endzone, but the offense failed to make it there themselves. In a disastrous upset, the Ravens fell 15-6 to a team that would go on to win the Super Bowl.
It wasn’t that the Colts were a better team, but their weak defense began to click at just the right time and they carried that much needed momentum all the way to the big dance. I’m not ready to say that Ravens are a team of destiny just yet, but if they are, it starts with momentum.
Yesterday on BSR, I discussed Peyton Manning’s terrible postseason numbers in games below 40 degrees. If you missed it — they’re bad, he’s 0-3 with one touchdown and seven interceptions. I don’t expect him to suddenly put this trend behind him in what should be a 22 degree game.
Eliminating an aspect of Manning’s game will help the Ravens focus on stopping Knowshon Moreno. He crushed Baltimore with 115 yards and a touchdown in week 15 and he’ll become the Broncos’ main target on Saturday. I’m sure that Dean Pees’ defense will be prepared for those plays.
On the other side of the ball, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce should set up long drives for the Ravens offense. Pierce led the Ravens in rushing yards against the Colts with 103 and provides a more traditional bruiser type to the offense to compliment Rice’s quick bursts, cuts and stiff arms. I expect more screen passes and less plays down field. The Ravens must win the time of possession battle to win this game and they know that. The weather completely changes their game plan.
Yeah, I know that the Broncos finished their season winning 11 games in a row, but I wasn’t blown away by the second-half schedule. Denver’s opponents after week 8 had a combined 35-64 record and only two of Denver’s opponents had winning records at the time of their games (Buccaneers and Ravens).
Peter Schrager of Fox Sports, the only guy who seems to agree with me on my prediction this week, breaks down why he thinks the Ravens will pull off an upset.
The Ravens are no doubt battle tested. Denver? They’ve been in cruise control since October. If Saturday’s game is close in the second half, are we certain the Broncos will respond under pressure? I know Baltimore’s been through those wars this year. Denver? Eh, it feels like it’s been decades since they’ve faced any sort of adversity. For the first time all season, Baltimore’s actually healthy on defense, too. With the exception of Lardarius Webb and potentially linebacker Danell Elerbee, all of Baltimore’s key defensive stars will be in action, ready to go. Last Sunday’s 24-9 win over the Colts marked the only game this season that the Baltimore defense had Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed in the lineup together. They all played well. Younger veterans Paul Kruger and Corey Graham played even better.
You remember the emotions of Ray Lewis’ final home game? Remember when he led the defense with 13 tackles and his freshly rested legs helped him to be a force in the middle of the field? That’s not going away.
This is it for Ray and it’s likely it for Ed Reed in a Ravens uniform. This team is changing and they’ll be losing a huge veteran presence after this postseason. They’re determined to make sure the storied career of a future Hall of Famer doesn’t end in Denver, they want it to end with the confetti falling in New Orleans and one more ring.
Again, Schrager puts it perfectly.
Baltimore isn’t supposed to win Saturday’s game in Denver. If Las Vegas sportsbooks are any sort of indication, this game’s not even supposed to be close. But I covered a Steelers team that rode a veteran’s last ride into Indianapolis and beat Peyton Manning in the 2005 divisional round. I covered a Giants team last year that waltzed into Lambeau and Salsa danced out as victors. I was in that Ravens locker room on Sunday. There was a certain unity — a certain desperation — that reminded me of both of those teams.
I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.
But I like Baltimore on Saturday.
I’m going with my gut. I’m siding with the guys with the veterans, with the gritty cold weather proof team with momentum. I’m picking a Ravens upset.