By Mike Wilkening, Pro Football Weekly
Key matchup: Ravens WRs Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin vs. Broncos CBs Champ Bailey, Chris Harris and the Denver pass defense
When the Broncos and Ravens met in Week 15, Denver won this matchup handily. Smith had one catch for 14 yards before leaving the game in the third quarter with a concussion, and Boldin was held without a catch in six targets. (A 10-yard fourth-quarter reception by Boldin was nullified by a holding penalty; more on that play and its ramifications for this game in a moment.)
Smith and Boldin complement each other well, and at their best, both can give opponents — including Denver — some real problems. Possessing rare speed and exceptional athleticism, Smith is one of the AFC's top deep threats.
It will be interesting to see if the Ravens look to get Smith more involved in the rematch with Denver, even if it means looking his way when he's one-on-one with Bailey, one of the game's top cover corners. Smith will need to use everything he has learned in two NFL seasons to play his best game against Bailey, a future Hall of Famer who's still playing at a very high level at age 34.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco needs to be pinpoint in his accuracy for Smith to succeed, too. In the first meeting, Flacco made a beautiful back-shoulder throw to Smith early in the third quarter. Bailey had excellent coverage, but the throw was outstanding, and Smith made a wonderful leaping catch. However, Smith landed partially out of bounds, and he suffered the concussion on his fall to the turf, ending his day. It was simply rotten luck for Flacco, Smith and the Ravens, who are going to have to take some similar calculated risks on Saturday. They simply cannot avoid Bailey for four quarters.
Still, the more the Ravens can avoid Bailey, the better. And that doesn't mean simply throwing at Harris, the Broncos' right cornerback, either. Harris is a solid player in his own right, and he tilted the first meeting between these teams when he stepped in front of Boldin and returned a Flacco pass 98 yards for a touchdown just before halftime.
This brings us back to Boldin's penalty-nullifed fourth-quarter catch. On the play, Boldin was in the slot, and he was matched up with Broncos WLB Wesley Woodyard. That's a matchup Boldin can win, and the same can be said for Smith. In fact, one of Smith's three targets in Week 15 came on a play in which Woodyard was covering him in the slot. The pass, alas, fell incomplete.
On both plays, the Ravens went with an empty-backfield, five-receiver set, with RB Ray Rice split out wide and either Boldin or Smith in the slot. This is a formation to look for on Saturday; if the Ravens can give Flacco enough time to scan the field and if the wideout beats Woodyard off the jam, here's a play with some potential for Baltimore. Finally, keep an eye on whether the Ravens are able to find any mismatches running their no-huddle offense.
So much rides on whether the Ravens' offense can take advantage of any big-play opportunities it might have. We know the Broncos' offense can do so. Baltimore's ability to capitalize on favorable matchups will be tied to its upset chances on Saturday.