The Denver Broncos enter this year’s playoffs as the top seeded team in the AFC and one of the favorites to run the table and win the Super Bowl. Las Vegas even has the Broncos listed as the best bet to win it all at 5-2 odds. However, over the last several years, there have been at least two teams that earned a bye in the first round that were defeated in the divisional round of the playoffs. And the Broncos are facing a very strong, motivated Baltimore Ravens team that comes to Denver on the “Last Ride” tour. Denver needs to play smart and execute well if they want to get past the Ravens. So here are some of the key things the Broncos need to do in order to punch their ticket to the AFC championship game.
Weather the Storm
The Ravens are coming to the Mile High City with a lot of emotion and drive. Baltimore would love to avenge a December 16 loss at the hands of the Broncos. Denver walked onto the Raven’s home field and put thirty-four points on them in a dominating win. Joe Flacco and the Ravens would love nothing more than to return the favor. After Ray Lewis announced his retirement, the Ravens have adopted a “win one for Ray” mentality. The whole team showed its emotion and tenacity with a win over the Colts in the Wild Card round last weekend. They will likely come out with the same fire this Saturday when they face off with Denver at 2:30. What the Broncos must do is stifle the Ravens offense and not allow them to get into any rhythm. This will allow Peyton Manning and the Denver offense to strike early and often. As far as the emotion from Ray Lewis’s “last ride”, this isn’t Baltimore anymore. The Raven’s have no home crowd to feed off of. Last week the crowd at M&T Bank Stadium was so loud they disrupted the Colt’s offense on several occasions. Now the tables will turn and the only thing Baltimore can count on is seas of orange and rabid Broncos fans wanting to see Manning take the Broncos all the way.
Get off to a fast start
If the Bronco offense can get off to a quick start and put some points on the board early and build on that lead, then they’ll force the Ravens to play catch up and pass instead of handing the ball off to Ray Rice. With the best pass rushing attack in the NFL (52 sacks) and the second ranked pass defense, this will play to Denver’s advantage. The Broncos were the only team in the NFL that didn’t allow a 300 yard passing game against them all season. With a good lead and sustained drives, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil can run wild and attack the Raven’s offense. And with Flacco throwing so much, Champ Bailey, Chris Harris and Tony Carter will be there to take advantage of any mistakes.
Take advantage of the bye week
With the top seed in the AFC comes the reward of a bye week. Most teams use this to get healthy, rest a bit, and then get ready for the game after they find out who they’ll be playing. But thanks to the leadership of veteran quarterback Peyton Manning, the Broncos treated their bye week as a work week by practicing, preparing, and studying film to be ready for their next opponent. The Ravens played a great game to beat the Colts, especially with their smothering, aggressive defense. But that hard-hitting defense was on the field for eighty-seven plays that totaled over thirty-seven minutes of possession for the Colts. And now they come to the Mile High City where the air is thinner and it’s much harder to recover quickly after strenuous physical activity, on a short week no less. The Broncos can take advantage of the Raven’s fatigue by putting together long scoring drives with some hard running and play action passing, forcing the Ravens defense to tire and keeping Ray Rice and the offense off the field. An exhausted Baltimore defense should mean good things for the Broncos chances of advancing.
Contain Ray Rice
Ray Rice is a dynamic player and a serious threat to score every time he touches the ball. If he is allowed to run wild and consistently gain big yards then it will be a long day for Denver. Rice’s running ability allows the Raven’s offense to open up and use more play action passes, screens and deep routes. If the Broncos can suppress Baltimore’s running game, they can focus on stopping the passing game and hopefully force Rice and the offense into constant three and outs. That will enable the Broncos to keep the ball for longer, driving up their time of possession and giving them more opportunities to score. The more time Ray Rice, Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense spends on the sideline, the better Denver’s odds are of coming out on top.
Don’t be overconfident
The Broncos have had an incredible season so far this year with so much going right and so much to be proud of. The Broncos have captured their second consecutive division title. They finished the season with a 13-3 record including reeling off eleven straight wins. Peyton Manning has had a year to remember, finishing with the second most passing yards of his career and is in the discussion for the comeback player of the award and the most valuable player award. Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas have had career years, both going for over one thousand yards and double digit touchdowns. The team finished as the top seeded team in the AFC and was ranked number one overall in the NFL’s power rankings. And all of that could be for nothing if the Broncos don’t emerge triumphant this Saturday. Denver has to avoid feeling cocky as this Baltimore team is too good to look past. With Ray Lewis’s retirement looming and the Ravens playing with more passion than ever, the Broncos need to be at the top of their game in order to get past them. Ray Lewis will have his team ready to play. But so will Peyton Manning.
This is the most talented Broncos team since the Super Bowl years in the late 1990s. The Broncos are one of the few teams that ended the season ranked in the top five in both offense and defense. If the Broncos play a balanced game, minimize their turnovers, and keep Ray Rice in check, they have a great chance of playing for the AFC championship at Sports Authority Field at Mile High next weekend.
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