Two old foes, first ballot Hall of Famers, meet for the final time in the A.F.C. Playoffs this weekend in Denver. Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning meet once again in the playoffs, the winner advances to the the A.F.C. Championship Game.
Peyton Manning has proved the doubters wrong, barely missing a beat leading the Denver Broncos to the A.F.C. West title. Unlike his days as the Colts starting quarterback, he is backed by a tremendous defense. Ray Lewis is writing a comeback story of his own, returning from a triceps injury to lead the Ravens over the Manning’s old team in the first round.
John Elway was able to pacify the Denver faithful by bringing in Manning to replace Tim Tebow. Manning has quickly turned Denver into a version of the old Colts. Knowshon Moreno has become a poor mans Edgerrin James, running the stretch play and keeping defenses honest when Manning play action fakes. Demaryius Thomas is on the verge of joining the elite receivers in the league and Eric Decker is a solid number two receiver.
John Fox Denver’s coach, prefers his defense to play the 4-3 scheme. Outsider linebacker Von Miller is the major threat with 18.5 sacks and defensive end Elvis Dumerville chipped in with 11. Cornerback Champ Bailey would like to add a Super Bowl ring to his Hall of Fame resume late in his career, as would middle linebacker Keith Brooking.
Baltimore’s offense and Joe Flacco is not up to Denver and Manning’s level. Flacco is a strong armed quarterback, but does not produce consistently. Ray Rice, an excellent multi-purpose back, is the best offensive weapon the Ravens possess. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin are a decent receiver tandem, while Dennis Pitta has emerged as a favorite target at the tight end spot.
The Ravens defense did not play up to their lofty standards this year. Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis all missed significant time with injuries. Fortunately for John Harbaugh, they are healthy come playoff time. Despite their #17 overall ranking, the Ravens defense is healthy, playoff tested and ready to challenge Manning. Haloti Ngata, the massive and talented defensive lineman has been their best player all year.
Manning and the Broncos may have trouble moving the ball initially against an emotional Ravens team. But Manning and his team are too strong to hold down all game. Paul Kruger was a disruptive force against Andrew Luck and needs to have a strong game. Manning has had trouble in the playoffs facing pressure. I think Denver and Manning will eventually move and score against the Ravens aging defense.
That leaves the Ravens counting on Flacco and the offense to score against Vonny Football and the Broncos. The inconsistent Flacco and the rest of the Baltimore offense may be overmatched here. The Ravens had a tough time against the Colts porous defense in the Wild Card round. Ray Rice is a good runner and can keep the rush off balance catching screen passes, but Baltimore never seems to hit the big play in the postseason. They will have a hard time moving the ball and will not be able to match Denver’s scoring output.
The reward for the John Elway’s Peyton Manning risk will be realized this weekend. Elway knew a quarterback of Manning’s caliber, coupled with his defense, would give the Broncos a good chance to reach the Super Bowl. Manning probably sends Ray Lewis out of the playoffs again, this time into retirement. It’s a shame Ray Lewis and the Ravens defense have not had a solid enough offense to reach another Super Bowl.