01/11/2013 11:13 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

AFC Divisional Playoffs Preview: Denver Broncos vs. Baltimore Ravens

Denver Broncos vs. Baltimore Ravens

Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013

4:30 p.m. (EST)


Ravens' offense vs. Broncos' defense

For the Ravens to even stand a chance in this game, quarterback Joe Flacco's going to have to seriously improve upon his performance from the last time these two teams met. The first thing that jumps off the screen when watching the Broncos' Week 15 slaughter of the Ravens is how much of a hindrance Flacco was to his offense. Flacco had numerous plays where he missed open receivers with his passes, and it led to consistent three-and-outs, and eventually a pick-six that put the Broncos up 17-0 at the end of the first half.

Flacco's pretty much a one-trick pony at this point in his career, but the offense is built around his one trick: the deep ball. The Ravens win lots of games because running back Ray Rice can pound the ball, and Flacco can hit speedy receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones deep downfield if the defense plays too close to the line of scrimmage.

Denver's two excellent cornerbacks, Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter, make Flacco's trick harder to perform, though. Both corners are great at obtaining favorable leverage and re-routing receivers to the outside, where Flacco will have a tougher time accurately getting the ball to the receiver between the cornerback and the endzone.

Flacco's not the type of quarterback who can thread the needle into tight spaces, so the Ravens' offensive play-calling will need to create bigger spaces into which Flacco can throw. One way the Ravens can do so will be to run go routes from the slots (or tight end position) to create room for underneath routes like slants and drags for the outside receivers.

With Jones, Smith, receiver Anquan Boldin and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta to work with, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will have a variety of weapons to move around the field to create mismatches with this route combination. If defenders play backed off of the deep routes, the slot receiver (or tight end) will draw the defensive backs and leave room for the outside receiver working underneath. If the coverage focuses too much on the quick slants, Flacco can put the ball over the top to whoever's running the go route. Of course, the pressure will be on Flacco to make the right read on these plays and hit the right receiver.

Working in Flacco's favor, though, will be a likely increase in the time he receives to make the throws he needs to make. When the two teams last faced off, the Ravens were missing right guard Marshall Yanda, and Flacco took a lot of heat from the right side. This time around, Yanda is back, former Pro Bowler Bryant McKinnie has been inserted at left tackle, former left tackle Michael Oher will be at right tackle, and former right tackle Kelechi Osemele will be at left guard.

This starting lineup fared well against the Colts last week, allowing only one sack and providing blocking for the Ravens' running backs to run for 172 yards. When the Broncos played the Ravens in Week 15, the Ravens' line allowed three sacks, and the team rushed for only 56 yards. The Ravens' reshuffled line will have to contain pass-rushing monsters Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, which is no easy task, but Flacco's going to have to do his part in that regard, too.

When Miller and Dumervil line up on the same side of the line, Flacco's going to have to immediately audible into a run play directed away from the side of the field on which Miller and Dumervil are lined up. It's a small adjustment to make, but those types of small plays are what can make huge differences by attacking the defense right where it's weakest.

Additionally, Flacco has to move better within the pocket. Flacco's far from a statue and his ability to roll out of the pocket can be an asset, but he needs to be cognizant of when he should and shouldn't do so. Too often in the teams' previous faceoff, Flacco stayed in the pocket when he could've rolled out to escape the pass rush, and rolled out when the defensive end was playing containment and left room for Flacco to step up in the pocket.

If Flacco can be better in the pocket, check the offense into more favorable run plays and hit the right receivers when the slot players are clearing out underneath routes, the Ravens can sustain more successful drives against the Broncos than they did in December.

Broncos' offense vs. Ravens' defense

Before the season, the biggest issues with Peyton Manning's neck surgeries were expected to be throwing to the right side of the field, and throwing deep. Seven of his 11 interceptions this year came on throws to the right side of the field. He completed 64.8 percent of passes on that side of the field, compared to 70.2 percent in the middle and left.

On passes that traveled 10 yards or less past the line of scrimmage (including behind the line of scrimmage) his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 18-2. On passes more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, his ratio was 16-9.

These numbers are pretty good either way, but the fact remains, his level of play drops off significantly when throwing to the right or throwing deep. He may have the greatest football mind of any player in the history of the game, but he's physically still limited with where he can throw the ball effectively. He was able to get away with that in the atrocious AFC West, but playing against playoff defenses are going to be another story.

That doesn't mean he's going to suddenly be horrendous in the playoffs, though. He's still one of the smartest players to ever play the game, and if anyone can play efficiently despite physical limitations, it's Manning. On the other side of the ball, though, will be another aging all-time great with an uncanny sense of intelligence ready to match wits against Manning.

Linebacker Ray Lewis has clearly lost some of his speed, especially in pass coverage, but his performance against the Colts last week showed he still improves the defense's performance because of his ability to anticipate the offense's play. Lewis' knowledge of where the play is heading allows him to know exactly what angle to take or hole to shoot through, which helps him remain an effective playmaker.

While both units are bolstered by their respective star player's intelligence, each unit's biggest weakness comes from that player's biggest weakness.

When both teams played each other in Week 15 of the regular season, the Ravens' defense was successful in the beginning of the game, forcing five punts and sacking Manning twice in the first half. The key to the Ravens' defensive success was inside linebacker Josh Bynes' coverage of running backs Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno in the passing game.

Whenever a Broncos running back tried to leave the backfield, Bynes bumped him to disrupt the timing of his route and make him take longer to get open. Additionally, cornerback Chris Johnson shed past blockers with ease on a screen to receiver Demaryius Thomas early in the first quarter, tackling him at the line of scrimmage and causing the Broncos to abandon the screen play.

Bumping the running back and eliminating screens took away the Broncos' short passing game and forced Manning to throw deeper more often than he would have liked. Manning struggled when doing so, completing only two of nine passes categorized as "deep" by the official game log. In the first half, Manning was zero-for-four on such passes.

Lewis or inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who also did not play in the Week 15 loss to the Broncos, will be responsible for bumping the running back in this rematch. With Lewis slow in coverage and Ellerbe nursing a sprained ankle from last week's victory over the Colts, the Ravens will need whichever linebacker's assigned to bump and cover the running back to step up and play superbly in order to force Manning to look deep.

With the quick-passing options taken away, the Broncos had the most success moving the ball when the Ravens' defensive backs played too far back off of Thomas and fellow receiver Eric Decker in Week 15. Manning was able to successfully sit back and move the chains by taking the shorter and intermediate routes allowed by such cushions. To prevent that from happening again, the Ravens are going to have to play tighter coverage and force Manning to take the deep passes he struggled with last time.

When playing tight coverage, the Ravens will need safety Ed Reed playing the deep center portion of the field. Reed is known as one of the best "center-fielder" safeties of all time, and the Ravens will need him to do what he does best. With Manning's decreased downfield velocity, if Reed stays in the middle of the field he'll be able to help in coverage whenever Manning throws deep.

After the Ravens' offense opened with five straight three-and-outs, Baltimore's defensive line was eventually worn down, and the Broncos' offensive line found success putting two tight ends on the same side of the offensive line and knocking defenders back off the line of scrimmage in the run game. In turn, the Broncos were able to pass off of play-action more successfully, as evidenced by Manning's passing numbers when throwing off of play-action. As highlighted by the Baltimore Sun's Matt Vensel, Manning completed eight of 11 passes off of play-action for 133 yards and a touchdown, compared to completing nine of 17 pass attempts for 71 yards without play-action.

Shutting the Broncos' running game down is going to fall on Lewis and Ellerbe. In Week 15, the inside linebackers often froze and hesitated, torn between defending the run or dropping back to defend the play-action pass. The result was that the Ravens became ineffective against both. This time around, if Lewis and Ellerbe can recognize and react to the play more quickly than their replacements did in Week 15, the Ravens won't struggle to stop the run game and play-action passing game as much as they struggled in that game. If Lewis and Ellerbe have trouble recognizing run plays and play-action, or get blocked out of the plays frequently, it could lead to another blowout reminiscent of Week 15.