Sunday’s game between the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens features two division leaders in contention for the AFC's No. 2 seed. It's also a potential showdown between two of the best players at their position who are both on the comeback trail. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is an MVP candidate after missing all of last season with a neck injury. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is looking to return just eight weeks removed from surgery on a torn triceps and get Baltimore back on track in the playoff race.
ESPN bloggers Bill Williamson and Jamison Hensley discuss this matchup:
HENSLEY: The banged-up Ravens defense is not coming into this pivotal matchup on top of its game. The Ravens have lost their past two games by allowing two backup quarterbacks, Charlie Batch and Kirk Cousins, to come back against them in the fourth quarter. There is some hope with the potential return of Lewis and Terrell Suggs, two former NFL Defensive Players of the Year. But this isn't exactly the way Baltimore wants to head into a matchup with Manning, who has owned this team. Manning has won his past eight meetings against the Ravens, including five in Baltimore. The last time the Ravens beat Manning was 2001, when they were defending Super Bowl champions. Bill, is there anything the Ravens can do to slow him down?
WILLIAMSON: What the Broncos have going for them heading into this crucial game is that they are red hot. What else would you want going for you in mid-December? They have won eight straight games and own the longest current winning streak in the NFL. Denver is a season-high No. 2 in this week’s ESPN.com Power Rankings. Of course, it all starts with Manning. As Jamison points out, Manning has owned the Ravens. Something is going to give Sunday. While Manning has some power over the Ravens, his new team doesn’t. The Broncos are 0-5 all-time on the road against the Ravens, including in the playoffs. The question is, what is more important, Manning’s history or the Broncos’ recent history? I’d think the Broncos’ instant success since signing Manning may answer that question.
HENSLEY: I've witnessed every one of those Manning victories. The fun part about watching them is the verbal chess match between Manning and Lewis. Manning does his famous audibles at the line, and Lewis counters by yelling at his teammates on where to move. Lewis is expected to return this week after tearing his triceps two months ago. It's a season-ending injury for many players. Most thought Lewis wouldn't return this season. But he proves time and time again that you shouldn't count him out. I never expected Lewis to be playing middle linebacker at 37 years old. While Lewis can't run sideline to sideline like he did years ago and he can't get off blocks as easily, his leadership to the Ravens is invaluable. It's why Suggs always refers to Lewis as "The General." Even if Lewis and Suggs are able to play, the best linebacker on the field Sunday won't be wearing purple.
WILLIAMSON: I’m sure the Broncos would prefer Lewis to stay out for another week because of his leadership and his ability to inspire his team. Who else besides Lewis can get the Ravens out of their mini-funk? But physically, I give the Broncos and Manning the edge here. Lewis just isn’t the player he was and as Jamison hinted up top, there will be a dominant, young linebacker on the field. While Manning is a leading MVP candidate, second-year Denver outside linebacker Von Miller is a leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His top competition is Houston’s J.J. Watt. While Watt’s team floundered Monday night at New England, Miller and his defense have a chance to shine in their big game Sunday. Miller has been brilliant. He has 16 sacks, six forced fumbles and an interception return for a touchdown. Most important, the No. 2 overall pick in 2011 has become a complete player. He does so much more than just put heat on the quarterback. His overall game savvy will be on display.
HENSLEY: Bill, those six forced fumbles have to concern the Ravens because quarterback Joe Flacco's pocket awareness has been terrible recently. Flacco was among the league leaders in fumbles last season with six, and he has fumbled the past two games. It’s also bad timing for the Ravens to take on the team ranking second in the NFL in sacks. There’s a chance that the Ravens will be without their best lineman, right guard Marshal Yanda, who has a significant ankle sprain. The Ravens could reshuffle the line and put Michael Oher at right tackle (he has allowed two sacks that have led to fumbles the past two games) or stick with rookie second-round pick Kelechi Osemele (who has allowed eight sacks). Miller has dominated right tackles this year, so Baltimore needs someone to step up at that spot. In an effort to slow down the pass rush, look for new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to use more no-huddle (to wear down the Denver linemen), go with more maximum protection schemes and get the ball to Ray Rice on screens.
WILLIAMSON: You are right, Jamison, I think the Broncos will be squarely focused on stopping Rice. The AFC West has seen this season how Rice can ruin an afternoon. Fourth-and-29 anyone? The Broncos are well coached on defense and they adjust well. What impresses me most about this defense is that it improves as the game goes on. Like Manning and the offense, this defense gets better in the second half. So, yes, Baltimore may have some success with Rice both running the ball and on screen plays, but I’m not sure it will be able to sustain it all game long. Baltimore will have to get more varied in its offensive attack throughout the course of the game to put pressure on Denver. That will be a lot to ask from Caldwell in the first game he has called strictly on offense since 2000, when he was at Wake Forest.
HENSLEY: I think Rice is the Ravens' X factor on offense. But, Bill, I have to admit I think Rice is always the X factor when it comes to the Ravens. When they get him 20 touches, it usually results in a win. On defense, it's safety Ed Reed. He has been quiet lately with one interception in his past five games. But Reed is going to be a free agent at the end of this season, and going against the top quarterbacks brings the best out of him. Reed picked off Manning three times in a playoff game three years ago, but two of them were taken away because of penalties on other Ravens players. I remember talking to Reed a few years ago when he talked about why he deserved a new contract. "Peyton Manning doesn't sleep when he sees No. 20 going to Indy," Reed said. Let's see if he'll be Manning's nightmare Sunday.
WILLIAMSON: Look, I’m a big Reed fan. I always enjoy watching him. I love how players like him have helped change the importance of the safety position in today’s NFL. If the Ravens are going to pull out of their collective doldrums, they will need a player like Reed to make a big play or two Sunday. He is fully capable. Denver will have to account for him. But it all goes back to my original take: Denver is the hotter team and has the hotter players. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Ravens rise up. They are great at home and good teams like this rarely lose three straight games. But I do know that Denver, which has been playing at a high level in all phases, will not go into this game with a lack of confidence. The Broncos believe in themselves and they know eight-game win streaks don’t happen in the NFL by accident. Denver will be a team with a purpose Sunday.