Sunday's Broncos-Ravens match-up looked to be the most difficult on Denver's second-half-of-the-season schedule -- a road game against a division-leading team whose quarterback, Joe Flacco, continues to chirp about how he and his squad are among the NFL's elite. They sure as hell didn't look like it during a 34-17 shellacking. But because of the Ravens' current state, it's hard to tell whether the victory truly marks the Broncos as Super Bowl-material.
Prior to the contest, the Ravens' linebacker corps was decimated by injuries, and Ray Lewis's plan to make a comeback against Denver proved to be a nonstarter. Even worse, Baltimore suffered another couple of knock-outs during the game, with both Bernard Pierce and Torrie Smith winding up on the shelf with what appeared to be concussions. The result was what commentator Dan Dierdorf referred to on several occasions during the broadcast as a M*A*S*H unit's worth of wounded warriors -- so many that Broncos doubters out there have already started to diminish the size of their accomplishment.
We understand this theory. But consider also that the Ravens were a desperate team prior to several previous losses, and while the Broncos are still playing to improve their playoff position, they've already wrapped up the top spot in the AFC West. Those factors argue that the size and scope of the Denver win was still pretty damn impressive.
Not so the Broncos' first possession -- a clunky three-and-out. And initially, anyhow, the Ravens looked hungry and motivated. But on a third and one, Flacco fumbled on a friggin' quarterback sneak, setting the stage for more humiliations to come.
Manning and company managed to convert that turnover into a 27-yard field goal -- disappointing given where they took over -- and followed that with a couple of empty possessions before finally getting untracked, mainly thanks to the running of Knowshon Moreno, although Jacob Hester ultimately collected the six, thereby establishing a 10-0 lead.
Back to Moreno, though. His performance -- 118 yards on 22 carries -- raises an unavoidable question: Why has he been so solid in the weeks since Willis McGahee was injured when he's sucked so hard for most of the past two years? A lot of the credit goes to the offensive line, which has steadily improved over the course of the season, particularly from a run-blocking perspective. Evidence of this was plentiful yesterday, when there were several occasions when Moreno didn't encounter his first defender until he was several yards beyond the line of scrimmage. But much as it pains me to say, Moreno deserves kudos as well. He could have become a locker-room cancer after being relegated to the practice squad for a time, but from all reports, he's remained focused on improving, and his efforts have obviously paid off. If McGahee isn't back for the playoffs, or if he's a shadow of his former self, Moreno and Ronnie Hillman seem capable of filling in ably.
Still, the runaway wouldn't have happened as quickly as it did without a great defensive play -- and an unforgivable Flacco blunder.
As the first half was drawing to a close, the Ravens managed to get within spitting distance of the Broncos' end zone, with the biggest success of the drive coming courtesy of a 43 yarder from Flacco to Jacoby Jones. But then, Big Joe's presumed touchdown strike to Anquan Boldin wound up in the hands of Chris Harris, who carried the ball 98 yards the other direction.
The last man Harris beat was Flacco, who wound up face down in the turf -- a fitting image given how the remainder of the contest went.
Armed with a seventeen-point advantage, Manning went to work in the third quarter, taking advantage of adjustments to manufacture two lightning-quick drives for touchdowns, with Eric Decker and Moreno getting the glory, respectively. At that point, the dye was cast, with the Broncos' defense allowing a couple garbage-time touchdowns while playing out the string. The last of these, during which Derek Pitta played dodge-Denver for a 61-yard score, would have thrilled the Ravens faithful had more than a handful of them been left in the stadium.
Equally good news: Last night, the San Francisco 49ers bested the New England Patriots, putting Denver in the number two playoffs position. Now, all the Broncos have to do is beat their last two opponents, Cleveland and Kansas City, in order to guarantee a first-round bye and home field advantage unless they meet the Houston Texans in the AFC championship game.
Contrary to popular belief, and history, Cleveland isn't a joke right now, so that game is no gimme. But the Broncos are playing the Browns (and the Chiefs) at home, and Manning's legendary intensity should insure that his teammates don't let up against lesser opponents. And even if the Ravens weren't as fearsome as they seemed earlier in the season, Denver's ninth straight W remained a mighty sweet treat.
Look below to see five videos -- an interview with Manning, Peyton's post-game press conference, a weird animated video by a disappointed Ravens fan, Baltimore's Ed Reed admitting to frustration and an ESPN analysis.
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