By Nate Winkler ((@natewinkler)
Cold, Hard Football Facts Continental Divider
The second round of the NFL playoffs kicks off in Denver Saturday afternoon with the 10-point underdog Baltimore Ravens (11-6) squaring off against the Denver Broncos (13-3).
Denver played its way into the first overall seed (thanks, Houston!) as they ran away with the AFC West, while Baltimore sputtered into the playoffs but locked up the AFC North and the fourth seed.
The Ravens got their swagger back last weekend with a 24-9 against the Indianapolis Colts in Ray Lewis' final home game but were soundly defeated by the Broncos 34-17 back in Week 15 in Baltimore.
The last time the Broncos hosted a Division Round playoff game was in 2005, when they handed the New England Patriots their first playoff loss of the Tom Brady era.
Here are 5 Things to Expect:
1. The Denver Broncos are one of the most balanced #1 seeds since expansion and re-alignment in 2002 and will only continue to win if they remain that way.
The Broncos finished No. 2 in our CHFF Quality Stats Power Rankings in 2012 behind only the Seattle Seahawks, which by itself is quite an achievement. Denver ranks in the top five in 15 of the 19 metrics we track at CHFF, including 3rd in Passer Rating Differential and first in Defensive Hog Index, both of which are great indicators for team success.
IF you're not yet hip to the Sabermetrics of football and prefer more traditional stats, the Broncos also finished in the top five in the NFL in Points Scored (2nd), Yards Gained (4th), Points Allowed(4th), and Yards Allowed(2nd).
Of the 20 No. 1 seeds from 2002-2011, only one other team achieved such excellence on both sides of the ball. The 2007 New England Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season and finished first in Points Scored and Yards Gained while ranking fourth in Points and Yards Allowed.
Only the 2008 New York Giants can even claim to have finished in the top 10 in all four categories among No. 1 seeds in that span. The bad news for the Broncos is neither of those balanced teams managed to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in those seasons.
2. Knowshon Moreno will become just the second back since 2000 to have 100 yards rushing against the Ravens twice in the same season.
The Baltimore Ravens vaunted defense, which has finished in the top five in yards allowed nine times since the 1999 season, slipped to 17th in 2012. They've only finished worse once (22nd in 2002) in that same span. Can the blame be placed on injuries to Defensive Player of the Year winners Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis or are the Ravens
After allowing just 18 individual rushing performances of 100+ yards in 171 chances (.105) from 1999-2008, the Ravens have allowed 14 such games in just 71 chances (.197) since the start of 2009. Cedric Benson is the only player to do so twice in the same season when he rushed for 120 Yds in Week 5 then 117 Yds in Week 9.
The Broncos made a fine example of how well they run to set up the pass when they jumped out to a 31-3 lead against Baltimore four weeks ago in the Charm City. Moreno gained 115 yards and a touchdown on the ground while the Broncos racked up 163 rushing yards overall, their 4th highest total of the season.It could be a long day for the Ravens if they have to commit either Ed Reed or Bernard Pollard in the box to stop the run.
3. Joe Flacco will struggle to shed the moniker of playoff underachiever to a quarterback who knows a thing or two about being labeled a choke artist himself.
Peyton Manning could never win the big one, going back to his days at Tennessee and his inability to beat Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators. As a pro, Manning was 3-6 in the NFL postseason in his first eight years before finally getting over the hump by winning the Super Bowl in 2006.
Manning has averaged 283.6 Pass Yds per Game with a 63.1% Completion Rate with 29 TDs to 19 INTs for a Passer Rating of 88.4 in his 19 career playoff games, all with Indianapolis.
Joe Flacco became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons and is now 6-4 in the postseason, but has yet take the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Flacco has just a 54.1% Completion Rate and 181.4 Pass Yds per Game with 10 TDs to 8 INTs for a 75.1 Passer Rating in the postseason.
Flacco will have to play well above his postseason averages against a Denver defense that allowed just a 79.44 Defensive Passer Rating during the regular season (9th) if he is to stave off elimination from Manning's Broncos.
4. Denver will rely heavily on their tight ends to stretch the Baltimore linebackers to the limits of their face masks.
If the Ravens can't stop the run effectively the Broncos will bombard them with play-action passes focusing on the mismatches in the middle of the field. Ray Lewis may provide an emotional spark for the Ravens' D and he did rack up 13 tackles last week, but Baltimore allowed 7 receptions for 76 yards to the Colts' tight ends and the linebackers as a whole are a liability in coverage.
Much as he did during his time in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning has relied heavily on his tight ends in Denver, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, who combined for 93 receptions for 911 yards during the regular season. In all, Denver's tight ends caught 98 of Manning's 400 completions, or 24.5 percent.
Denver lead the NFL in Real Passing Yards per Attempt in 2012 with 7.44 Yards per drop back, and they will continue to push the football down the field forcing the Ravens to pick their poison. On the outside, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker became the youngest teammates in NFL history to have 1,000 yards receiving and 10 TDs in the same season as they combined for 179 Receptions for 2,498 Yds and 23 TDs. By comparison, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne totaled 181 Receptions for 2,676 Yds and 21 TDs during the Colts' 2006 Championship season.
5. The 2nd biggest upset in Broncos' playoff history would be much more probable if John Elway wasn't the boss.
The 1996 Denver Broncos went 13-3 and finished near the top of the league in every major offensive and defensive category. The upstart Jacksonville Jaguars came to town for the Division Round as 12.5 point underdogs and defeated the Broncos 30-27 is a game John Elway later called the worst loss of his career. Quite a bold statement for a quarterback who lost three Super Bowls in the late 1980's by an average score of 45-13. Denver avenged the Jacksonville loss in the Wild-Card Round the following year on their way to winning the first of back-to-back Super Bowls.
Elway is now the Vice President of Football Operations for the team he quarterbacked from 1983-1998. He deserves a lion's share of the credit and for Denver's quick turnaround after drafting Von Miller and signed Peyton Manning in his first two off-seasons as the Broncos' HMFIC, and will likely win the NFL's Executive of the Year honors for 2012.
You can bet the "Duke of Denver" will have a few words to say to John Fox, Peyton Manning, and the rest of the team about capitalizing on the opportunity that is before them. Despite riding an NFL-high 11 game winning streak and being the odd-on favorite to win the Super Bowl, the Broncos must maintain focus on executing and winning individual battles against the Ravens if they are to avoid being one-and-done.