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Divisional-Round Preview: Ravens vs. Broncos

Big names in big games. These foes know each other well as they clash once more on a pivotal stage.

Patrick Smith

High atop a mountain in the dead of winter, Peyton Manning quietly herds his goats and awaits a group of legends to come and attack him. He's done this a thousand times before but never in the mountaintops. He headed west from the prairies of Indiana to seek a new chance at glory and ride off into sunsets unseen in quarterback lore. The purple wraiths on their way have been sent there to snatch away his orange ring and keep it for their own. The setting is an NFL comic book.

While it's true that the names involved in the Divisional Round game in Denver read like a Hall-of-Fame ballot, they are all closer to that mustard jacket than they are from their primes. The Ravens "big four" are like the current Rolling Stones, dragging themselves around and still performing despite all the aches and pains. Ray Lewis is hanging it up after the season and plays with what looks like a robotic arm at the moment. Ed Reed is always the gamy pirate, but the scurvy and the neck/shoulder problems are getting the best of him. Terrell Suggs came back from a ruptured achilles only to tear a biceps muscle. Things fall apart.

For Manning, however, he still looks like a Jedi to me. Arguably the greatest offensive mind in the NFL today, he runs his show with surgical precision and is rarely ever surprised anymore. He is devastating on third down and sees everything before it happens. The pass protection has help up remarkably this season and the unit as a whole has put up astounding numbers.

The Ravens also have a quarterback that knows his way around the playoffs. Joe Flacco is always in the postseason and was one drop away from making the Super Bowl. He is certainly not of legendary status and is criticized more than praised, but he will always be a big guy with a strong arm and that alone can take you places in this league. Sadly for Joe, though, he is susceptible to pressure and Denver had more sacks than the Bengals this season. Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller are going to bring the heat from the outside, and Justin Bannan and Derrick Wolfe are strong interior guys. If Flacco can step up in the pocket and make clean throws, Baltimore would have a great chance to escape with a win, but the Broncos have too much along that front line to allow that to happen. I suspect the Ravens will become frustrated and resort to throwing dangerous deep balls in an attempt to get the passing game going.

If that becomes true, it goes back to the Stones and their last hurrah. The Ravens corners are weak, and Denver's wide outs are big and fast. It will be vital for Baltimore to limit the Denver running game to make third-down conversions more difficult. When Manning can operate with third-and-medium, he is nearly unbeatable. There is talk that Willis McGahee could return next week, but for now it's the Knowshon Moreno show. Moreno has been up and down in his career, but he has the physical skills needed for success and he gouged the Ravens in Week 15 earlier this season. If they can't stop him, they really can't win.

Even though it seems crazy that John Harbaugh should feel pressure regarding his job after making it to five straight postseason trips, one can sense his seat warming a little bit. This game is fairly critical to his career in Baltimore. I'm not suggesting he will be fired, but if he loses this game and has a hard time again next year, the patience will be short.

Baltimore is a solid team that is always built in a steady fashion, but they've lost some teeth over the years and they find themselves in an awkward transitional phase of a franchise. Denver is riding high in a dream season, lapping up the euphoria Manning has brought them. They are perhaps oblivious to even the possibility of a loss, and maybe that helps the Ravens, but I can't see Manning the goat herder going out like that.

Broncos 30, Ravens 17

Mojokong-mile-high milieu.