NFL 2nd Round: Baltimore-Denver

The last time Peyton Manning was on the field for a playoff game came in the first round of the 2010 season, when his Colts lost a home game to Rex Ryan’s Jets. Now Peyton’s comeback reaches the postseason on Saturday afternoon when his Denver Broncos host the Baltimore Ravens (4:30 PM ET, CBS) in the game that kicks off the NFL’s second round. We’ll break down the matchup, try and place it in some historical perspective, look at the betting lines in Las Vegas and make a pick.

THE MATCHUP: This is the kind of matchup that Baltimore has outcoached themselves in during recent years. The Ravens are best being a run-first team and letting Joe Flacco throw after the rushing attack with Ray Rice is established. Meanwhile, Denver has an excellent rush defense, but is susceptible to the pass.  Under former Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, you could count on the Ravens to chase fool’s gold, go pass first and find out that all for Flacco’s strengths, he’s not someone you have as the first option in the offense.

But Cameron was canned in December and Jim Caldwell took over. The firing took place leading up to the regular season meeting between these two teams, when Denver got a blowout win on the road. I’m okay with tossing that out—trying to win a game when your coaching staff is in transition is tough. What I want to see is if Caldwell will commit to Rice, even if it doesn’t’ work early and even if Denver scores first. Just give Ray the ball and let Flacco’s passing game off of that.  Because while Bronco pass coverage is questionable, their pass rush is outstanding and if they get comfortable teeing off on Flacco it’s going to be a long day for the Ravens.

On the flip side, there’s no such need for caution with Denver. We know their quarterback can take the load on his shoulders and he’ll have to, with the Denver rush offense only ranking 25th in yards-per-carry. The Broncos have to rely on short passes to serve as a de facto running game. While the Baltimore defense has its veterans—Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata on the field, I don’t know that they can get pressure on Manning and the Denver protection has been outstanding all year, even with teams knowing they’re going to throw. And the fact the Broncos still rank 5th in yards-per-pass attempt tells you that low sack totals aren’t coming at the expense of getting the ball down the field.

THE CONTEXT: The history is less about Ravens-Broncos, then the two big personalities on the Denver side. Baltimore had a terrible time against Peyton when he played for Indianapolis. And if we go to the front office, John Elway was originally drafted by the old Baltimore Colts, but refused to play for Bob Irsay Sr, and his used his leverage as a baseball draftee of the New York Yankees to force a trade. So the city of Baltimore has had its issues with the two legends for Denver.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS:  The market really loves the Broncos, slotting them as 9.5 point favorite. The total is at 46.5, which is in the middle of the four playoff games this weekend. I get why people like Denver to go all the way—other than the running game, they have no real weaknesses, but that’s an awful lot of points to give to a veteran team that has a history of winning road playoff games and even in the games they come up short, there’s a good history of competing well.

PREDICTION: As you might have discerned from the comments above, I’ll pick Denver to win, but I think this one is going to be much closer than the experts say. I consider a Baltimore win more likely than a Denver pointspread cover if I had to pick. The key to the Ravens winning are that they have to force some turnovers—at least a couple—and that’s not something Denver has struggled with this year. If Denver is going to cover the number, they have to count on Baltimore reverting to the pass-happy tendencies of Cameron years. I don’t think that’s likely. Both offenses will play well, the game comes down to the fourth quarter and Peyton keeps his magical year alive with a 34-31 win.

Outright Winners: 3-0*
Pointspread Winners: 2-1
Totals Line: 1-2
*Recused myself from the Washington-Seattle case due to fan bias