#4 Baltimore Ravens (AFC North Champion)
- 2012 Record: 11-6 (defeated Indianapolis 24-9 in Wild-Card Round)
- Regular Season Point Differential: +54 (11th)
- Strength of Schedule: -0.5 PPG (17th)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 2.99 (14th)
- Defensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 1.75 (11th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 6.3 (15th)
- Yards per Carry: 4.3 (12th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 6.1 (16th)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 4.0 (8th)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 1 (Haloti Ngata)
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: Medium
#1 Denver Broncos (AFC West Champion)
- 2012 Record: 13-3
- Regular Season Point Differential: +192 (2nd)
- Strength of Schedule: -1.9 PPG (28th)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 3.05 (11th)
- Defensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 1.57 (4th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 7.4 (1st)
- Yards per Carry: 3.8 (25th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 5.2 (1st)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 3.6 (2nd)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 2 (Peyton Manning, Von Miller)
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: Medium
3:30 P.M. Saturday, January 12th, CBS (Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf)
Since the NFL front-loaded all of the Broncos’ primetime games this year out of fear that Peyton Manning wouldn’t be healthy for the stretch run, America primarily got their fill of Denver this season in September and October – also known as the part of the season where Manning was still working himself back into shape, the defense was getting burned by the Texans and Patriots, and Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker were hard at work turning sure long touchdown catches into hilarious pratfalls and/or turnovers. When the Broncos finished their last primetime game of the season on October 28th – a 34-14 win over the Saints – they were 4-3 and just a game ahead of the Chargers and Raiders. That performance against New Orleans was arguably their best of the season, so it’s not like Denver faded into their pit of obscurity as the #4 regional game on CBS every week on a bad note. It’s just that they’ve won nine in a row since then while we were all paying attention to RGIII, the Patriots, and another Cowboys implosion, so let’s conduct a quick primer on what’s happened in Bronco Land over the past two months.
First, the nutshell version: they’ve stopped shooting themselves in the foot. You’ll hearken back to their Monday night game the second week of the season at Atlanta and remember the 37 interceptions Peyton threw in the first half of the first quarter; he hasn’t done that so much since. The Texans burned the Broncos’ secondary repeatedly in the first half of the next week’s game on long throws to Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter. KEVIN WALTER! Rahim Moore and Mike Adams have battened down the hatches considerably on the back end since then. Finally on Oct. 7th, the Patriots used the fuel from three Broncos turnovers (a Demaryius “Clutching a Turnover from the Jaws of a Touchdown” Special, a Willis McGahee fumble in the red zone, and a Manning sack-fumble deep in their own end) to chew up the Denver run defense to the tune of 251 rushing yards. Since then, the Broncos have only given up more than 100 yards rushing in a game once (Nov. 25 at Kansas City; Jamaal Charles is pretty good) and were the second-ranked team in Yards per Carry allowed overall. From the beginning of November until the middle of December, the Broncos mainly played steady if not spectacular football against a mostly bad slate of teams. They won their last three games by a combined score of 106-32 and enter their first game of 2013 as the best all-around team in the AFC.
Why? Well, there’s the reason you probably know: Peyton Manning is really freaking good. He’s not quite playing as well as he ever has – go brush up on game tapes from the 2004-2006 seasons if you need a refresher – but he’s settling in at just a notch below that, which is still a higher level than 99% of NFL quarterbacks have reached. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker have gotten more and more in sync with Manning as the year has progressed and Brandon Stokley has hooked himself up to the 2004 Rejuvenation Machine and somehow turned back into an effective slot receiver (perhaps Peyton had a little hand in that?). So, yes: the Broncos pass the ball as well as anyone. But then there’s the reason you may not be aware of: this defense, quite unexpectedly, has turned into one of the three or four best in the league. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are just as devastating rushing off the edge as they were last season, if not moreso, but Jack Del Rio has worked some magic in transforming the defense around those two. Seriously, Keith Brooking started 14 games for the Broncos this season and he was one of the biggest punch lines in the league with the Cowboys the two seasons prior to this one. Let’s all give Jack a big hand after all those rough years he had in Jacksonville. Under his tutelage, thirty-three year old Justin Bannan has turned into a poor man’s AFC Justin Smith as a run defender, Wesley Woodyard was one of the biggest play-making 4-3 linebackers in the league, and Chris Harris and Tony Carter made opponents pay whenever they shied away from Champ Bailey and threw in their direction. The only thing the Broncos didn’t do well this year was run the ball after Willis McGahee went on injured reserve. Everything else, they’ve got pretty well covered.
So how do the Ravens go on the road and stack up a viable threat against all that? There are at least some positives they can take out of their 34-17 loss to the Broncos on December 16th: they did a good job neutralizing Manning, limiting him to approximately six net yards per attempt, and if Chris Harris doesn’t pick off Joe Flacco at the goal line and take it the distance the other way, the final score likely would have ended up within one possession. Even with that said, though, the Ravens mustered only 180 yards of offense in the first three quarters and didn’t score a touchdown until they were already down by twenty-eight points. And THAT game was played in Baltimore, where the Ravens enjoy the best home-field advantage outside of Seattle. No team has a wider gulf in their home and road point differentials over the past twenty years than the Ravens and Joe Flacco’s Adjusted Yards per Attempt average drops more than a full yard and a half when he’s away from M&T Bank Stadium. You can never outright dismiss the Ravens – they’re one of the most well-coached and competitive teams in the league. But this year’s team isn’t one of their strongest – they have great special teams and ”only” above-average everywhere else. Against a Broncos team that looks like they’ve got things pretty well figured out, merely above-average probably isn’t going to cut it.
Projected Final Score: Denver Broncos 26, Baltimore Ravens 17
Team to Bet On If Gambling Were Legal: Broncos (-8.5)