Broncos (6-0) @ Ravens (3-3)
Things certainly don’t get any easier for the Ravens coming off their bye. After facing 5-0 Minnesota in Week 6, our purple heroes now get 6-0 Denver in Week 8. Oh, and they will receive no competitive advantage from the schedule, since the Broncos too, are coming off their bye week. Realistically, the Ravens need to win 7 of their final 10 games to have a shot at the playoffs. It all starts now, and to have any prayer, the Ravens need to hold serve at M&T Bank Stadium. By winning their final 5 home games, the team will be able to finish double digit wins with perceived “gimme” games in Cleveland (Week 10) and Oakland (Week 17). Short of running the table at home though, the Ravens will likely face must-win scenarios in places like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay.
The Denver Broncos, who were supposed to be pushovers in 2009, after one of the most tumultuous offseasons ever seen by any franchise, have instead come out of the gates gangbusters. First year head coach Josh McDaniels’ squad is already sporting a comfortable 3-game lead in the AFC West, and they would own the #1 seed in the AFC, were the season only 6 weeks long. They’ve remained undefeated by being surprisingly efficient on offense, and by featuring the league’s stingiest defense.
Quarterback Kyle Orton, acquired via trade for Jay Cutler from the Chicago Bears, has been a huge surprise. Expected to struggle (based on his 4 non-remarkable seasons in the Windy City), Orton has instead flourished, passing for 9 touchdowns to go with only 1 interception, which came on an end-of-half Hail Mary toss. His QB rating of 100.1 is nearly 25 points higher than his career average. Orton’s 2009 is reminiscent of Chad Pennington’s 2008 – a “game manager plus” who makes a few plays every game, and is extremely stingy with the ball. Of course, the Ravens had no problem making Mr. Pennington look quite pedestrian last year, but so far nobody is confusing the 2009 Ravens defense with the 2008 version.
Orton’s weapon of choice is wideout Brandon Marshall, subject of many trade rumors here in B’More last Spring/Summer. The disgruntled Marshall has put his gripes aside and hauled in 29 passes for 332 yards and 4 TDs, all tops on the team. At 6’4″ 230, Marshall is just the kind of WR that has been giving the Ravens’ undersized cornerbacks fits all year, and Sunday threatens to be no different. Not only can Marshall go up and get the ball, he is hell to bring down once it’s in his hands. If the Ravens’ secondary can’t make open field tackles, this one could be ugly. Tight end Tony Scheffler is no slouch either, and he is coming on strong after a slow start. Scheffler had 10 catches for 146 yards over Denver’s last two games.
Rookie Knowshon Moreno and veteran Correll Buckhalter share the carries for Denver’s 7th-ranked rushing attack. Normally, we wouldn’t lose much sleep over these two, but with the Ravens allowing back-to-back 100-yard rushers, things are feeling a bit different in Charm City. The Ravens are healthy on defense at the moment, but need players like Kelly Gregg and Dawan Landry to be more active in stopping the run, lest Moreno and Buckhalter find some holes early and make things even easier for Brandon Marshall down the field.
Keep an eye out for #21 on the Ravens, Lardarius Webb, who has been getting more reps with the first-team defense in practice.
Former Ravens defensive coordinator and 49ers head coach Mike Nolan has taken over the defense in the Mile High city, and has his unit playing well above expectations. Some guy named Elvis Dumervil leads the NFL with 10.0 sacks, just two shy of his career high through only six games. With the Ravens’ offensive tackle situation suddenly re-muddied (Jared Gaither missed practice Thursday with an apparent setback to his neck injury recovery), Joe Flacco may again find himself under duress. Michael Oher stepped in admirably in Gaither’s absence, and would go at LT again if needed. Dumervil, however, lines up all over the field, and RT Marshal Yanda will also have to be on top of his game.
D.J. Williams leads the team in tackles from his inside linebacker position in Nolan’s 3-4, and one of the all-time great safeties of the game, former Eagle Brian Dawkins, roams the secondary along with perennial All-Pro Champ Bailey. Flacco, who threw “red zone” interceptions in back-to-back games against Cincy and New England, before his 2 TD 0 INT performance at the Metrodome, will need to be at his best against a Denver defense that features a lot of pre-snap movement and blitzes from everywhere. Against Pittsburgh’s similar scheme last season, Flacco struggled mightily. The Broncos may not have the big name personnel, or the defensive tradition that Pittsburgh does, but they have so far made up for it in execution. The Ravens face Green Bay, along with Pittsburgh twice, down the stretch, so there is no better time than now for Joe Cool to start executing against the 3-4.
Budding NFL superstar Ray Rice saw his lead in the league’s all-purpose yards from scrimmage category eclipsed by Adrian Peterson during the bye, but he will have plenty of chances to climb back on top this week. Willis McGahee has been relegated to afterthought in the B’More offense, while Le’Ron “Pain Train” McClain can only think back fondly on his days of double-digit touches. Rice will have to earn his yards, as the Broncos haven’t allowed more than 76 yards on the ground to any opposition running back this year.
During the bye, the Ravens had plenty of problems they needed to correct. Perhaps they even saw that some of those problems are not correctable with the present roster personnel. If the latter is the case, one can only hope that they recognized that they are no longer a defensive, run-first, grind-it-out type football team. They feature one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the NFL in Rice, and a quarterback who is coming into his own in his second season. Flacco has come up just short on potential last minute game-winning drives in two of the last 3 games. It would serve the Ravens well to come out on offense picking up right where they left off in the 4th quarter in Minnesota, when they scored 21 points in the game’s final 8 minutes, rather than trying to establish a running game and play field-position with the Broncos. Go up early and make the Broncos throw the ball – don’t let them eat up the clock and keep Joe Cool and Ray Ray Jr. (anybody got a real nickname for Rice yet?) on the sidelines.
Denver has never won in B’More. Sunday can not, and WILL not be the day.
Everyone tilt your head back with me and take a big ol’ swig of that purple Kool-Aid. With a victory Sunday, we can go ahead and refill our cups. Should the opposite happen, we may well find that the fridge is empty.
Ravens 24 Broncos 13