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Five things to watch, divisional playoff edition

DENVER – It’s playoff time in Denver once again, and as kickoff nears, here’s five things to watch Saturday … and no, none of them involve the weather (at least directly), although “scary cold” does call for extreme measures by the fans:

1. DEALING WITH THE RAVENS’ DEFENSIVE CHANGES:

With safety Bernard Pollard and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Ray Lewis back in the lineup, Baltimore has license to be more aggressive than they were when the Broncos visited M&T Bank Stadium on Dec. 16.

This doesn’t mean it’s any better.

Indianapolis diced the Ravens for 419 yards last week. What saved Baltimore’s season was the Colts’ general sloppiness — two turnovers — and poor field position to start drives; just one of the Colts’ possessions began outside their own 23-yard-line.

While the Ravens can generate pressure, as they did on Peyton Manning for a few spells last month, their ability to do so will be hindered by the expected return of Chris Kuper to right guard in the place of understudy Manny Ramirez. If Manning doesn’t have to worry about the right side of his pocket collapsing, that allows more opportunity for Knowshon Moreno to catch passes out of the backfield, which will further sap the Ravens’ aggression.

And to further spotlight Lewis, the Ravens’ defensive numbers with and without him paint a stark — and to some, surprising — picture:

Average total yardage allowed: 399.9 in Lewis’ starts; 323.5 in all other games.
Average yardage per play allowed: 5.33 in Lewis’ starts; 4.99 in all other games.
Average rushing yardage allowed: 138.7 in Lewis’ starts; 114.6 in all other games.
Average net passing yardage allowed: 261.1 in Lewis’ starts; 208.9 in all other games.
Sack ratio: One every 21.7 pass plays in Lewis’ starts; one every 13.7 pass plays in all other games.

This is a unit that has problems, with or without its emotional touchstone. It’s one the Broncos can continue to exploit.

2. RAVENS GROUND-BOUND?

Baltimore shuffled up a new offensive line last week, moving Michael Oher from left to right tackle while inserting Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, and it worked for 170 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per carry, their best average since Week 6. But it wasn’t as efficient as you might think; just 19 percent of Baltimore’s carries gained first downs, their fifth-lowest rate of the season.

Baltimore abandoned the run against the Broncos last month; their 19 carries were their second-fewest of the season, but the de-emphasis was a function of the game flow, as they carried just five times after halftime. That’s unsurprising, of course, but in the Ravens’ three meaningful losses by a touchdown or less — games that were generally tight throughout — they ran less than 37 percent of the time twice.

Frequent running isn’t a cure-all for the Ravens; they ran on 60.3 percent of their snaps against the Redskins in Landover, Md. on Dec. 9 and lost in overtime. But in their 16 meaningful games — throwing out the regular-season finale at Cincinnati when backups played extensively — they’ve been better served by sticking to Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, all the while hoping that a leaky defense holds up.

That’s part of the reason why they face such a challenge Sunday: simply getting a huge game from Rice will not be enough.

3. PICKING UP THE PACE.

In the Broncos’ last loss, on Oct. 7 at New England, they were doomed by the breakneck pace at which the Patriots insisted on playing; by snapping the ball within as little as eight to 10 seconds after the previous play, New England exhausted the Broncos’ defense and ran 89 plays, the second-most ever run in a non-overtime game against Denver and the most since Cincinnati ran 92 plays on Sept. 2, 1984. Eight days after the Patriots ran 89 plays, the Chargers jumped out to score 24 points in the first half on Denver — 17 coming against a fatigued defense that didn’t find its footing until the second half.

So if you’re the Broncos, you’ve got the Ravens at 5,280 feet above their usual sea-level perch, and you draw them on a short week … oh, and you’re proficient at running an up-tempo offense … wouldn’t it be wise to accelerate matters against Baltimore’s defense? That unit was on the field for a season-high 87 plays last week — the most it’s endured since Dec. 24, 2000, when the Jets ran 91 plays.

It gets worse for the Ravens when you consider the record of teams the last 20 seasons that played their divisional game on a Saturday after winning a wild-card game the previous Sunday; they’re 2-14 in that scenario. However, both of the wins have come since 2008, and one was by Baltimore, which upset Tennessee 13-10 six days after defeating Miami 27-9.

4. LET PEYTON BE PEYTON.

He’s got the glove on his right hand, which has allowed him to throw even better and more accurately than he had earlier this season, and has helped him compensate for lingering issues related to his year off and four neck surgeries.. He’s had prolific games in perfect conditions, on damp days and, against the Chiefs, flourished in mid-30s chill.

This isn’t the time for the Broncos to tighten up tactically. Let Peyton take the shotgun snaps and dissect a defense. The conditions will be cold, but with only a light wind expected, everything Manning does should be unaffected.

Too many times, teams get into the playoffs and become afflicted with “tight sphincter syndrome.” The play-calling becomes more conservative. Risky blitzes become more rare. Fear of fouling up becomes the primary motivation, and without realizing it, the tenets of a successful season are abandoned.

If the Broncos avoid this trap, they will carry the day.

5. FORGET ABOUT THE STREAK.

If carrying an 11-game winning streak into the playoffs meant more than just a nice item in a press release or a “W-11″ note in the standings, then the 1993 Houston Oilers and 2009 San Diego Chargers would be remembered as something other than colossal disappointments that were a harbinger of decline to come — and in the Oilers’ case, an eventual move to Nashville, Tenn.

In the Super Bowl era, six teams have entered the postseason with winning streaks of 11 or more games. Two won world championships: the 1972 Dolphins and the 2003 Patriots. One lost in the Super Bowl (the 2007 Patriots), one lost in the conference championship (the 2004 Steelers) and two didn’t even win a playoff game (the 1993 Oilers and the 2009 Chargers).

It’s a small sample size, so you can’t draw a conclusion from it — except to say that if you’ve bought a non-refundable plane reservation to New Orleans, then I hope it’s on an airline that allows you to transfer the money paid to another itinerary.

The odds and trends are in the Broncos’ favor. But looking beyond this game to tantalizing matchups that might follow is presumptuous folly.

PREDICTION: Broncos 31, Ravens 17.

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