Gee, I guess I might as well not even watch this game. All of football punditry have declared the Ravens DOA in Denver. Not a chance, Ray Lewis' last game. Flacco beat Manning? You've GOT to be kidding.
Hmmm. Last year I predicted publicly that Joe Flacco would outplay Tom Brady in their playoff game. I was roundly ridiculed for my ignorance and naivety. And though the Ravens lost, it was because Lee Evans dropped a pass in the endzone with seconds remaining followed by Billy Cundiff missing a chip shot 20-some yard field goal which would have forced overtime.
Flacco - 22/36 for 306 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT ... Passer Rating 95.4
Brady - 22/36 for 239 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT ... Passer Rating 57.5
This was a home game for Brady, BTW.
Now, I'm not saying that Flacco is a better QB than Brady. But he does have a track record of playing well against the Patriots and playing well in New England. Brady also had a track record of struggling against Baltimore's defense.
For THIS game, I'm certainly not saying Flacco is better than Manning, but I think he again has a good chance of being competitive, and possibly even outplaying him. And as such, I think the Ravens at least have a chance to win today. There are several reasons why.
1. - In the past Manning has not played as well in cold weather. Peyton grew up in the south, lives in the south, and played in a domed stadium for years. His record in outdoor playoff games is 3-6. When playing in January in sub-30 degree temperatures his passer rating is 66. (He has recently started wearing a glove on his throwing hand which appears to have helped as he had a great game in the cold against the Chiefs.) It is predicted that the game time temperature in Denver today will be 18 degrees. Meanwhile, Joe Flacco grew up in New Jersey, played in Delaware for college, and plays in Baltimore where it still gets cold. He will be more in his element than Manning.
2. - Manning has a history of underperforming in the playoffs. In fact, for years, the rap on him was that he couldn't win the big games. His record in the playoffs is 9-10. He is also just a year younger than Ray Lewis, and is at the end of a long season after having had neck surgery last year. It may well be that the younger Flacco, he turns 28 on Wednesday, has more left in the tank at this point in the season. Flacco is 6-4 in postseason play, and has improved each year. He also has a maddening habit of under-performing against bad teams and over-performing against good teams.
3. - The previous game between these teams means less than it might appear. Yes, the Ravens were hammered by the Broncos in Baltimore week 15, 34-17. It was certainly ugly. There were, however, several factors which are no longer in play. The team the Ravens fielded that day was missing five starters, and many of those who did play were fighting injuries. The Ravens offense was also in transition having just fired Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron that week. With the exception of that first game, the starting offense has started to perform up to early season expectations under Jim Caldwell. He and Flacco work well together.
4. Despite not being a top 5 defense as in years past, the Ravens have been tough in the red zone, and over the last 6 games of the season have been the 4th best defense in the NFL, allowing on average less than 300 yards per game. This included the 34-17 blowout loss to Denver, and the last game of the season in which they mostly rested their starters.
Now, all that said, the Ravens also face some significant disadvantages. The most prominent of those is physical conditioning and energy reserves. The altitude in Denver is certainly a factor for any sea-level team that comes to play. The air definitely lacks "muchness" and can make it difficult to keep a player's muscles supplied with sufficient oxygen to perform at top levels of competition. This is amplified by a couple of circumstances.
One is that the Ravens are playing on a short week, having played Sunday in Baltimore. Meanwhile, the Broncos are well-rested having had a bye week. To compound this issue, the Ravens won last week using quick strike plays, and in spite of 2 Ray Rice fumbles. This all led to an extreme imbalance in time-of-possession, with the Colts dominating at 37 minutes to 23. In that time their up-tempo offense ran 87 plays. By way of contrast, in the Ravens previous 2 games the Bengals and Giants COMBINED for 94 plays on offense. So to recap, the Ravens defense is coming into the mile-high game on a short week after playing almost two full games worth of football last week. "You say the hill's too steep to climb ... Climb it."
The spread on this game is 9.5 points, and the over / under is 46.