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In looking at the Denver Broncos remaining games on the schedule, their date with the Baltimore Ravens was circled by many fans as the toughest remaining matchup of the season before the playoffs. With home dates against Cleveland in week 16 and Kansas City in the final week, the Broncos were facing the Baltimore Ravens on the road in what was expected to be a marquee matchup.
While the Broncos had their playoff destiny already cemented by virtue of an AFC West title, the Ravens needed a win to keep ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. While the Ravens had a full two game lead over the Bengals and Steelers going into week 15, there’s been plenty of discord over the recent performance of the Ravens offense combined with a plethora of injuries for their defense.
The Ravens’ offense has been in such disarray that the team fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron during the week, meaning quarterback Joe Flacco was taking his directions from quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. Meanwhile, the Ravens defense was without key contributors such as linebackers Ray Lewis, Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbee.
Defensive end Pernell McPhee was also scheduled to be out, but the defense did have key linebacker Terrell Suggs return to play after dealing with a torn bicep muscle. Suggs did have a few stretches where he had to sit out, but suffice to say the Ravens defense was digging deep to find bodies to resist the Broncos offense led by quarterback Peyton Manning.
The Broncos hadn’t lost since week 5 in New England, and the Broncos wanted to see how the team would perform on the road in one of the more hostile environments in the NFL. While Manning had a decent effort on the day with just 204 yards passing, they did get 118 rushing yards from Knowshon Moreno and 133 yards receiving from Eric Decker to beat the Ravens 34 to 17. The score was a bit closer due to some late effort by the Ravens in the fourth quarter, but the Broncos had one of the most dominant efforts in the first half to stake themselves to a 17 point lead at the break. Here are five things that we learned about both sides after the 17 point Broncos win which was their ninth in a row.
1. The Ravens defense was extremely solid all game and deserved a better fate despite giving up 34 points. The Ravens defense made a statement in the first series of the game holding the Broncos to a 3 and out sequence, and it appeared they had some early momentum in their favor, but the Ravens offense had an early fumble that the Broncos converted into points. Flacco was trying to stretch out on a third down run and had a fumble, which gave Denver the ball at midfield. They were driving well until stalling for a Matt Prater field goal, but the Broncos probably should have had more points. The Ravens offense almost put points on the board in the first half after another key stop of the Broncos offense, but Flacco threw an interception that cornerback Chris Harris returned for a touchdown just before the halftime break. The Broncos were up 10 to 0 at that point, and the Ravens were at their two yard line going in for a touchdown, so the Harris return turned a potential 10 to 7 score line into a 17 point Broncos lead. The fact the Broncos didn’t dominate this game more was due to some great individual efforts on defense from players like defensive backs Cary Williams and James Ihedigbo.
2. The Ravens defense was masterful at points, but the offense was just as horrible with just one first down in the first half and two key turnovers. Flacco’s two giveaways cost the Ravens momentum and points, and while they did get points finally in the fourth quarter with two touchdown passes, the Ravens offense just simply was non-functional for most of the game. Running back Ray Rice was a huge non-factor with just 38 yards rushing, and the Ravens could have used a threat to help keep the Broncos defense distracted away from chasing Flacco. Without it, Flacco was seriously running for his life for most of the first half and as such, he made some really poor decisions with his passes and had the two turnovers. If you look at the final stats and take out the monster game that Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta had, Flacco’s day was pretty uneventful.
3. Dennis Pitta is becoming a tight end to watch in the NFL. Seven catches is an impressive output for any tight end, but add in 125 receiving yards and two touchdowns, and that makes for a very special day. What adds even more to this impressive effort for Pitta is that his two touchdown catches were for 61 yards and 31 yards, so there was some athletic effort involved with both plays. While the rest of the Baltimore offense struggled to find any consistency, Pitta was a huge weapon for them. It’s unfortunate that he had a case of the drops in the first half, though, as he dropped three very catchable balls that could have really helped his team during their first half doldrums, but apparently he wasn’t immune to the problems the rest of the Ravens offense was suffering through.
4. Knowshon Moreno has resurrected his career with his recent play. Moreno fumbled in the second game of the year for Denver, and then spent the next eight weeks buried on the bench. According to many within the organization, Moreno worked very hard in practice to earn another shot and when Willis McGahee went down to an injury, Moreno was ready. He’s responded with some wonderful efforts, but what impressed me in this game was how many times that Moreno was able to earn more yards after the initial contact or attempted tackle. Moreno has some powerful legs and a low center of gravity, and he put that on display plenty against the Ravens all game. He will be a key figure for the Broncos, and while Ronnie Hillman and Jacob Hester did have some good runs in this game, it’s obvious that Moreno is their feature back.
5. While I’m happy with the win, the Broncos did have some issues down the stretch that they need to address. Prater missed a late field goal from 45 yards out, while the Broncos had some unfortunate penalties that cost them field position late, but what was more of a concern to me was the fact they had the Ravens dominated, but they were able to stay close otherwise. Pitta’s 61 yard touchdown gave the Ravens some hope, and apparently his long run was due to some blown coverage, but Pitta was also able to get past the defense for 31 yards previously without too much resistance. While the Broncos remain one of the teams to beat in the AFC, I do worry a bit that some of the mistakes they are making in games could come back to bite them when they face the improved opposition that the playoffs will bring soon. I’m sure that Coach John Fox will be happy for the win, but will also talk to his team about avoiding such mistakes.