The 9-4 Ravens, fresh off two straight losses, host the red hot 10-3 Broncos this Sunday in Baltimore at 1 p.m.  Denver has ripped off eight straight wins behind the MVP caliber play of 36 year old, future hall of fame quarterback Peyton Manning.  Manning, a Ravens killer by historical standards, continues to add to his legacy with the Broncos after sitting out last season recovering from neck surgery. 

He’s tossed for 3,812 yards through the first 13 games, with 30 touchdowns and 10 picks, and will undoubtedly be headed to his 12th Pro Bowl this year.

Baltimore’s offense on the other hand, hit the near-panic button on Monday by firing fan public enemy number one, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.  Cameron has been replaced by quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell.  Caldwell’s never called a play in the NFL, and owes much of his success in the league to none other than a one Peyton Manning, who Caldwell coached in Indianapolis for nine years, seven as the Colts quarterbacks coach, and two as Indy’s head coach.  Caldwell was fired from Indianapolis after last season when the Manning-less Colts won just two games.

Both teams continue to battle for the AFC’s top two playoff seeds heading into Week 14.  Here are some keys to the game.

The New OC  

With the official canning of Cameron, which has been a topic of media debate for the better part of three years, QB Joe Flacco officially loses our most convenient excuse for his inconsistent performances.  It’s not realistic to expect major changes to the offense at this point in the season, but Caldwell will probably loosen the reins on Flacco by allowing more no-huddle offense, thereby allowing Joe to make play changes at the line, in contrast to Cameron’s style of strict control.

Flacco and his offense will be tested in a big way by Denver’s fourth ranked hard-hitting defense.  The Broncos feature relentless outside linebacker Von Miller, one of the top young players in the league, sure-tackling punishers Elvis Dumervil and Keith Brooking, and ageless Canton-bound cornerback Champ Bailey.  With Flacco’s current bid for a high dollar offseason contract extension not meeting expectations, it will be interesting to see how he responds with pressure mounting and under the tutelage of a new captain of the ship for the final three games of the year.

Yes, but Defense?

Even if the Ravens offense explodes on Sunday, the elephant in the room, particularly after last week’s Redskins debacle, remains the defense’s inability to hold their ground against anyone.  They’ve been battered by cornerback and linebacker injuries, and against Washington showed themselves to be the worst Baltimore tackling team in recent memory by allowing RB Alfred Morris to break for big gains after weak arm wrap-up attempts repeatedly.

Peyton Manning makes bad defenses pay dearly.  He’s largely responsible for revolutionizing timing routes in the NFL, and the chemistry he’s developed with wide-outs Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas make Denver one of the most dangerous offenses in the league.  Thomas is the most physically gifted receiver to ever line up outside of Manning, and Peyton shows tremendous trust in him by putting the ball into space before Thomas comes out of his breaks.  The Ravens will need a strong effort from their cornerbacks in sticking to Bronco receivers, and could also use a beeline underneath interception or two from safety Ed Reed.  Reed has turned subtle Manning miscalculations into big Baltimore plays in the past and needs to capitalize on any errant throws.  Baltimore has to tackle better to stay in this game.

Bottom Line

Cam Cameron was often criticized for not providing Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice with enough touches.  Last week, Rice carried 20 times for 121 yards, and Cameron was fired the next day.  This move was a long time in the making, but can be partially attributed to Cameron’s decision to have Rice run out the final 44 seconds of the first half when the team had two timeouts and should have been looking to add a field goal before the end of the 2nd quarter.

The meaning?  When you lose games, people will be upset no matter how the losses occur… so don’t lose!  The Ravens have to find some way to end their two game skid this week by beating the Broncos, clinching the AFC North division title, and remaining in the hunt for a top playoff seed.  If Peyton and the Broncos put it on the Ravens this week in Baltimore, this season quickly shifts from 9-2 sunny skies into a potential Hindenburg meltdown.  Time to find the toughness!