1. The health of the Broncos’ offensive line. The signs currently visible point to left tackle Ryan Clady and right guard Chris Kuper playing. Clady didn’t practice last week with an injury that the Broncos have kept close to their vest, and Kuper hasn’t played on the offensive line since Week 13 against Tampa Bay. But he was active and did line up on field-goal and extra-point protection against Kansas City on Dec. 30. That’s significant because the last time he handled only that work, in Week 5 at New England, it was the bridge to his return to full-time play in the following game at San Diego. If Clady is out on the practice field by Wednesday, expect him to go. Kuper has been a practice mainstay in recent weeks and it would be a shock if he doesn’t play.
That being said, if one or both can’t play Saturday, it’s potentially transformative. At one point in the Broncos’ 34-17 win at Baltimore on Dec. 16, Peyton Manning was hit on three consecutive passes, including once for a sack, and he was sacked twice by the Ravens. Baltimore’s front seven is healthier, and even though Ray Lewis isn’t what he was a decade ago, his presence gives other members of the Ravens’ front seven the confidence to attack, knowing that Lewis has his turf covered.
2. Mistakes. After watching how San Francisco gagged away a potential Super Bowl appearance last January on punt returns, it’s abundantly clear how a flaw in the third phase of the game can prove fatal to a team’s hopes. That’s why Trindon Holliday could prove to be the most important member of the Broncos if they’re mired in close games in the playoffs. Although he can be spectacular, he has fumbled once every 8.25 returns. In 10 games for the Broncos, he averaged 4.2 returns per game, which means if they go to the AFC Championship Game, he is statistically on pace to fumble once in those two games.
Maybe it comes when the Broncos have a commanding lead, and is inconsequential. His previous fumbles have yet to cost the Broncos a victory — for that matter, he hasn’t seen a loss all season, since he started the year with Houston during its unbeaten start before he was waived prior to Week 6. He’s one of just five players in the NFL to score on at least one kickoff and punt return this year, and his rate of one touchdown per 21 returns as a Bronco is better than all but one player (Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin) with at least 35 total returns. But even his touchdowns bordered on disaster because of casual flips of the football as he crossed the goal line.
Holliday can change a game — to either extreme. But he’s not the Broncos’ only problem; their team-wide total of 14 lost fumbles is the most for any playoff team.
1. The weather. It’s fun to discuss, and important for fans knowing what to wear, but unless the forecast changes dramatically, it will have little impact. Cold conditions without precipitation or wind rarely have much of an effect unless the temperature drops below 0 °F (-17.8 °C), which places the game in Ice Bowl or Freezer Bowl territory.
Besides, the Broncos already know what to do to prepare adequately for it. Some, like Manning, have been working on this preparation for a month.
2. Manning’s glove: He began using it in practice last month and played with it the last two games of the regular season. His completion percentage was higher by 5.8 percentage points and his quarterback rating was 19.2 points better with the glove than without it. Obviously, it was against inferior opposition, although the Browns offered a mid-table pass defense, ranking 14th in yardage per attempt and 16th in quarterback rating against them.
“Love the glove, baby. There’s no difference,” said tight end Jacob Tamme. “Other than seeing it, I would never know that he’s got it on. Whatever works.”
3. Taking an early lead. Don’t worry unless the Broncos fall behind by more than 14 points. The Ravens are more likely to be in form early given that they didn’t have a week off. Denver’s best bet is to use its freshness to gradually wear down a Ravens defense that is prone to being gashed, having given up 400 or more yards six times this year. That being said, the Ravens held the Broncos to 4.7 yards per play in December, 1.1 below the Broncos’ season-long average, which ranks sixth in the league.