The Denver Broncos have won 11 straight games. The Ravens are coming off an inspired playoff win at home, but enter the game as big underdogs. Do they have a chance to win this game? Can they cover the point spread? Let's take a closer look at this Saturday match-up.
Prior to the Wild Card round, Vegas put up a theoretical point spread for every potential Divisional Round match-up. For the Ravens/Broncos, they put up a line of -7. At that number I would have made Denver an official pick this week, but when things re-opened for betting on Sunday night the Broncos were listed at -9.5 (odds from SBRforum). That's not a number I want to get involved with, but it's also not inflated enough to come in on the underdog either. The true point spread for this game should be Broncos -7.5.
Do the Ravens Have a Chance?
In a word, no.
But for argument's sake, sure anything is possible. We all know this is the NFL and a recovered fumble here, a return TD there, and all of a sudden people are left scratching their head when the clock strikes 0:00.
Yet, in reality the Broncos should be heavy favorites here.
The overrated Ray Lewis hype will be a non-factor on the road where his showboating won't be appreciated by anyone outside of his family. Instead he'll have to worry about Peyton exposing his lack of coverage skills on underneath/coverage routes. And the defensive concerns don't stop there.
Peyton Manning has had a great season, but he plays even better at home. Now I've heard a lot of debate this week about whether or not Denver are overrated themselves. If they are, someone needs to explain the advanced stats to me. Denver hold the edge in all but two of the 17 statitical categories I keep track of - red zone defense vs Denver's red zone offense (marginal advantage) and special teams. In fact, the Ravens are tops in the league on special teams, which might mean something if they weren't so outmatched everywhere else. The Broncos rank near the very top in 9 of those 17 categories, including both the O/D-lines and in 3rd down efficiency on both sides of the ball - a place where most NFL games are won and lost.
The game plan will be pretty simple for Denver. Get the lead and force the Ravens into a one-dimensional game. If they have to abandon Rice and rely on Flacco it's going to be a long day. When the Ravens get into a lot of 3rd and longs it's pretty much game over since they rank well below average converting those situations. Oh, and the Broncos just happen to be the best 3rd down defense in the NFL. Don't be shocked if they are teeing off on Flacco at some point in the 2nd half.
The Ravens have been rolling Flacco out of the pocket of late to avoid the pass rush and compensate for an average O-line. The problem with that is his lack of pocket presence. If he's going to keep moving the pocket he better make a quick decision if the routes are covered because the backside rusher is primed for a turnover opportunity. I've seen it happen countless times with Flacco and the Broncos have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL with Miller/Dumervil.
If the Ravens do manage to hang around and be in this game, Rice is not going to be able to roam free like he did against the Colts. The Broncos rank right up there near the top in run defense, too. Only one team has rushed for more than 100 yards against Denver during their 11 game win-streak.
As if things weren't bad enough for the Ravens, they'll have to figure out how to defend Manning and his wide array of receiving options. If they drop back in coverage, Manning is more than happy to exploit a soft front and run it every other down.
The true challenge for Baltimore is whether or not they'll be able to play above their heads and take advantage of whatever opportunities come their way. They'll not only need "A" games from their studs, but they'll need to play a smart, collective effort on both sides of the ball.
Ray Rice is great, I like John Harbaugh, and they have been a bend-but-don't-break defense this season, but that's not going to be enough. As I said earlier, it's going to take a series of anomalous events for Baltimore to win this game. The only remaining question is whether or not they can cover the point spread. That's anyone's guess because at +9.5 there is a decent chance for a back-door cover even if this one isn't close. There are better options on the board this week, but if I had to make a pick I'd still lay the points and ride the home team.