BALTIMORE – Five things to watch when the Broncos face the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium here Sunday:
1. MIRROR IMAGES.
Not in every way, but potentially in one key aspect: the lack of a huddle on most downs. Baltimore has sparingly used the no-huddle in recent weeks after enjoying some early success with it, but the decision to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replace him with former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell offers a strong indication that the Ravens will pick up their pace walking to the line of scrimmage — although not necessarily at snapping the ball.
The point of going no-huddle isn’t usually to increase the number of snaps — the Patriots’ quick-snap, Oregon-esque offense is an exception — but rather to get a glimpse at the defensive alignment, preventing pre-snap substitution. Look for the Ravens to try and catch the Broncos in a nickel formation without Keith Brooking on the field; that would set Ray Rice up for some solid ground gains while allowing the Ravens to dictate the clock, as they would like to do.
2. DECKER RETURNING TO PROMINENCE?
Perhaps the most positive long-term sign from last week’s win at Oakland wasn’t Knowshon Moreno’s 119-yard game — after all, it came at the expense of one of the league’s worst run defenses — but Eric Decker shaking off several shaky weeks with his best, most consistent performance since Nov. 4.
Decker had as many catches last Thursday (eight) as he did in his previous three games combined, and finally looked to be back on the same page with Peyton Manning after failing to surpass 25 yards in three of the previous four games, scoring just one touchdown in the matter notching seven in the previous five games.
“(The chemistry) can be better and that’s what we focus on: making sure that this particular route, if there’s an adjustment that we’re on the same page,” Decker said. “There’s a lot of stuff that we have in and I think the trust is there (and) the understanding’s there.”
What’s missing is consistency. If Decker has a similar game Sunday to the one he had at Oakland, expect him to be the reliable threat he was in September and October; if he doesn’t, Demaryius Thomas will likely face bracket coverage the rest of the season, hindering his downfield effectiveness.
3. DON’T LOOK FOR RAY LEWIS.
Reports that Lewis’ right triceps muscle had atrophied during his time on injured reserve broke Saturday, seeming to assure that Lewis won’t be ready to play for at least another week in spite of practicing twice this week. The Ravens had to activate him from recallable injured reserve by 4 p.m. ET on Saturday; that didn’t happen. So for the first time in their six trips to Baltimore to face the Ravens, the Broncos will be spared the sight of Lewis dancing during pre-game introductions.
“I like watching him do intros, so I’m kind of hoping he (plays) for that reason,” Broncos coach John Fox said Wednesday.
However, Baltimore’s defense has allowed fewer yards per game without the 17-year veteran this year than with him, and the expected return of LB Terrell Suggs probably has more of an impact; his first game this year was the first one Lewis missed (Week 7 at Houston). But in six games he played before missing last week’s loss at Washington, Suggs wasn’t effective, notching only two sacks.
These injuries are the tip of the iceberg, the product of an aging defense and the most prominent reason why the Ravens’ once-formidable defense has slid down the league rankings — a drop that could accelerate Sunday if Manning and Co. get comfortable.
4. THE ROAD TO THE BYE IS OUT OF THE BRONCOS’ HANDS.
Last year, the Saints became the second 13-3 team to play in the wild-card round after losing a tiebreaker to San Francisco for the No. 2 seed. If the Broncos win Sunday, they’ll stare down the barrel of being the third such team unless the Texans lose twice or the 49ers fall once.
Denver’s best shot at moving into the bye could be Sunday night, when the Patriots host the 49ers; New England’s final two opponents are the Jaguars and Dolphins, and the Patriots’ kill-a-beetle-with-a-sledgehammer mentality ought to serve them well.
But remember this: Manning is 1-3 after first-round byes and Fox is 0-1. One of those two 13-3 teams forced to play in the first round went on to the Super Bowl (the 1999 Titans). Further, if the Texans lose once — they play Indianapolis twice in the next 15 days and Minnesota once, wild-card contenders all — and the Patriots win out, New England gets the top seed, meaning the Broncos wouldn’t have to face them until the AFC Championship (if Denver wins Sunday).
The bye may seem like a big deal. It’s not. So win or lose Sunday, fans should chill. Unless Manning or Von Miller get hurt. Then you panic.
5. “THE BALTIMORE KILLER.”
Having watched Manning for the last 13 games, ask yourself this: what means more, the Broncos’ historical struggles in Baltimore under Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels, or Manning’s four consecutive wins at M&T Bank Stadium and a mark of 8-0 against the Ravens at all venues since 2002?
I thought so.
PREDICTION: Broncos 31, Ravens 27.