Nobody in the NFL studies more opponents' game film than Ray Lewis or Peyton Manning. And a lot of Saturday's playoff result at Mile High Stadium in Denver will come down to a chess match and a downright guessing game between these two wise veterans.
"I know Peyton very well," said Lewis. "And he knows me and us very well, too. It's going to be a chess match..."
A cold chess match, that's for sure. Gameday temperatures are forecast for the mid-teens in Denver.
At least the Ravens will have all their guns back for this one. Last time they faced Denver and Peyton, they were depleted by injury. Now even Ray Lewis is back---and that means a lot in getting the defense lined up properly in response to Peyton's strategic calls.
The Ravens will be out for revenge in Denver after the Broncos routed them, 34-17, in Baltimore in Week 15. Whether it was Peyton, their running game or their defense, the Broncos had their way in making big plays and controlling the ball (38:34 time of possession). Manning’s counterpart, Joe Flacco, made the critical mistake—a red-zone interception returned 98 yards for a touchdown—that changed the game in the second quarter and the Ravens converted only one third down on 12 attempts.
While Denver wants to get a second ring for the 36-year-old Manning before he hangs it up in a few years, Baltimore is driven to do the same for 37-year-old inside linebacker Ray Lewis. The difference is the Ravens know this will be Ray's last career game if they lose.
Lewis will be the chessmaster in charge of the key matchup of the game:
Ravens’ front seven vs. Broncos’ running game. Other than Manning staying hot, the big offensive story for the Broncos down the stretch has been Knowshon Moreno. He went from the doghouse when Willis McGahee was healthy to carrying the load very effectively over the past six weeks. His best success as a starter came against the Ravens (21 carries, 115 yards). Baltimore has been far removed from the dominant run defenses of the past, and gave up 152 on the ground to Indianapolis. Even with Lewis back in their lineup, the Ravens are vulnerable to backs who can produce well between the tackles. If they commit too many defenders to coverage against Manning, he’ll simply hand off to Moreno for consistent 4- and 5-yard gains.
The one thing the Ravens did OK in Week 15—until a lapse allowed a 51-yard TD reception by Decker in the third quarter—was limit Manning’s wide receivers. While Decker had seven other catches for 82 more yards, Thomas had only four total for 13 yards. Baltimore struggled Sunday to slow down the Colts' duo of Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton in the wild-card round. Although the Ravens’ coverage had its moments, the big problem was yards after the catch. Manning consistently puts the ball in good position for Decker and Thomas to elude initial defenders. It’s especially hard to take away both players, as the Ravens already learned that the hard way.
I imagine Ray is looking at that very footage as we speak....