What better way for the NFL to kick off its 2013 season than with a Thursday night showdown featuring last year’s Super Bowl champion and one of this year’s Super Bowl favorites? Throw in the fact that the game is a rematch of last year’s AFC divisional round playoff game that became an instant classic and you’ve got quite the opener.
And yes, there’s also the subplot that is the Elvis Dumervil fax incident, a mistake that later stripped the Broncos of one of their most productive defensive players of the last several years. Elvis will be back in the building Thursday night, sporting purple and black as opposed to orange and blue.
Looking at the two teams, this should be one of the closer games the Broncos play all season. The Ravens will probably win the AFC North with somewhere close to a 10-6 record. There is a very real possibility that Thursday could be another playoff preview.
But let’s be realistic. The Ravens were absolutely gutted following the Super Bowl, losing Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. The reliable Anquan Boldin was traded, while key veterans Paul Kruger and Bernard Pollard signed with different teams. And as quickly as training camp began, Bronco killer Dennis Pitta suffered a season-ending injury.
Dumervil may crack the top five in sacks this season, but would shock everyone Thursday if he got around Bronco left tackle Ryan Clady, who may be the best protector in the game, and had a free shot at Peyton Manning.
I’m not worried about the Denver offense being able to move the ball effectively and put up points against the Baltimore defense. I am somewhat concerned about the other side of the ball.
Joe Flacco might be the most confident man on the planet, considering he beat both Manning and Tom Brady before carving up a San Francisco 49er defense that was supposed to the most intimidating in football. Seeing a huge banner of himself on Sports Authority Field doesn’t hurt a man’s ego either.
He may have lost two of his favorite targets in Pitta and Boldin. But he still has Torrey Smith, who torched Champ Bailey twice last January. Don’t forget about Ray Rice, who is just as dangerous catching passes out of the backfield as he is taking handoffs from Flacco.
Smith and Rice combined for 229 yards during last year’s playoff game, a number that makes fans do a double take, considering the Denver defense was one of the best in the category of yards allowed last season.
The easy answer to how the Broncos can stop Flacco this time around is to fluster him with a solid pass rush. Here’s what worries me. Last year, the Broncos had both Dumervil and Von Miller in uniform opposite Flacco. Neither did much to hurry the former University of Delaware quarterback.
With Dumervil wearing the opposition’s colors and Miller suspended, the Broncos don’t have a dynamic pass rusher Thursday night. Couple that with the Ravens’ offensive line being one of their strengths.
I think this game will be close all night. Don’t be surprised if the teams are separated by a single score even into the fourth quarter. Hopefully the Broncos will be more aggressive in finishing the game this time, instead of just hoping to run the clock out.
My prediction: Broncos-31, Ravens-21.
Three keys to the game for Denver:
Run, run, run. The ground game of John Fox’s crew was brutal during the preseason. If Manning has to throw the ball 40-plus times, the Broncos are in trouble.
Control Rice, Smith. The only way the Ravens win this game is if Ray Rice and Torrey Smith put up video game-like numbers again.
Defend home field. Jack Del Rio’s defense has to send a message early to the Ravens’ offense that they’ll be in for a long night. I’m not saying the Broncos have to rack up a bunch of unnecessary roughness penalties, but Wesley Woodyard putting Flacco on the turf during the first series would be nice.