Denver (10-3) stampedes into Baltimore (9-4) with three extra days rest, a league-best eight-game winning streak and the AFC West title already clinched.
Baltimore receives them on a two-game losing streak, the AFC North still up for grabs and with an undisputed claim for the third seed in the AFC playoffs on the line.
Think they are feeling the pressure on the Inner Harbor?
Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh took action, firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron - who held that post for five years - and promoting quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell to replace him.
Cameron was the scapegoat for a floundering offense. It disappeared after a breakout September and blew fourth-quarter leads against the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers and regional rival Washington Redskins each of the past two games.
Although firing an OC with a two-game lead in the division - just three weeks until the playoffs - is unorthodox, do not mistake Harbaugh’s decision as a desperate panic button plunge. Harbaugh knows the power of his team shifted from the defense to the offensive side of the ball through age and injury.
No. 1: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will thrive in Caldwell’s no huddle scheme.
Caldwell has not called an offensive play since his last season with Wake Forest in 2000, but the no huddle will mask his inexperience. The quarterback becomes the playcaller in the no huddle offense, so Flacco will really be the one directing traffic under Caldwell’s guidance.
Flacco’s frustration with the offense’s slow-paced vanilla approach was a major factor in Cameron’s dismissal. The cement-footed but rocket-armed QB looked as elite as he claims he is whenever Cameron allowed him to run the hurry up offense, especially out of the shotgun.
Plus, this game is at the comfortable confines of M&T Bank Stadium where Flacco has flourished:
Flacco must be decisive or Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s insatiable pass rush will add to Flacco’s 31 sacks and eight fumbles.
No. 2: Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will shine against a depleted Ravens defense.
If Charlie Batch, Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins can handle the once-dominant Baltimore defense, what do you think the future Hall-of-Famer will do with three extra days to game plan?
Even if Ray Lewis returns from his triceps tear this week, his emotional leadership cannot make up for his own diminished skills. Not to mention the possible absence of 2011 Defensive MVP Terrell Suggs among others on this injury-riddled squad.
Manning will have plenty of opportunities, an unintended consequence of the Ravens’ return to the no huddle offense. He is the master of the hurry up approach, a fact Caldwell knows all too well from his days developing it with Manning in Indianapolis—as QB coach, then head coach from 2002-10.
No. 3: Ravens running back Ray Rice’s performance will be the difference.
Ultimately, Cameron was canned because he underutilized Rice, one of the most prolific offensive weapons in the NFL (see: that 4th-and-29 conversion against San Diego in Week 11). His neglect for Rice’s ample rushing and receiving skills were especially apparent in the three Baltimore losses in which they lead after halftime.
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Caldwell and Flacco cannot repeat this mistake. The Denver defense has proven vulnerable to quality rushing attacks. The linebackers have also been exposed by passes to running backs and tight ends, but Wesley Woodyard’s return from an ankle injury should bolster a unit already strengthened by DJ Williams’ return from suspension.
The bottom line: Baltimore must overcome Pro Bowl guard Marshall Yanda’s absence and get Rice involved early and often if they want to reverse their fortunes.
If Rice remains an afterthought, the results will not be delightful.