(Sports Network) - To those in the Charm City it's called the "Mile High
Miracle." To others in the Rocky Mountains, it's the "Denver Debacle."
No matter the title, however, the sequel starts filming Thursday when the
reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens return to Sports Authority Field
at Mile High to kick off the 2013 NFL season by facing the reigning AFC West
champion Denver Broncos.
The Ravens stunned Denver on the same field back in January in the AFC
Divisional Playoffs, taking the fourth-longest game in NFL history by a 38-35
score in double overtime.
Highlights from that dramatic contest included Broncos return specialist
Trindon Holliday's two touchdown returns (90-yard punt return and 104-yard
kickoff return) and a spectacular TD catch by Denver wide receiver Brandon
Stokley, who is now a member of the Ravens.
Baltimore countered with a pair of interceptions by cornerback Corey
Graham, one for a score, and two long Joe Flacco TD passes to Torrey Smith
(59 and 32 yards). The most indelible image of the contest, though, was the
now famous Flacco to Jacoby Jones desperation heave which turned into a 70-
yard score and tied the game at the end of regulation.
The Ravens went on to win Super Bowl XLVII, posting a 14-6 overall record
after a 10-6 regular season. Denver, meanwhile, finished an NFL-best 13-3
before coming up short against Baltimore.
Despite their status as defending champs, the Ravens enter 2013 with a
changing of the guard following the loss of numerous key veterans that
previously had made up the team's identity. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk
and other key contributors have all moved on since Baltimore topped NFC
kingpin San Francisco in New Orleans back in February.
Lewis, the recent face of the franchise and Super Bowl MVP when the Ravens won
the franchise's first title to cap the 2000 campaign, hung up his cleats after
the season and was joined in retirement by Birk, a former Pro Bowl center who
had anchored the club's offensive line since '08.
Further cementing a new era, Lewis' partner in crime, Reed, signed as a free
agent with Houston. He wasn't the only one to move on, with Dannell Ellerbe,
Paul Kruger, Cary Williams and Bernard Pollard all switching teams over the
offseason. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was also traded to the 49ers.
The most obvious choice to replace Lewis as the leader of John Harbaugh's
squad is Flacco, and not just because he signed a massive six-year, $120.6
million deal after taking home his own Super Bowl MVP trophy.
What makes Flacco the new face of the Purple and Black is the shift to a more
powerful offense. The Ravens set a single-season franchise record by scoring
398 points a season ago and had the third-most plays in the NFL of 20-or-more
yards at 72.
"I think Joe's maturity is showing just as his career has grown. He's shown
that he's always going to be 'Cool Joe.' Now he's comfortable in his own skin
that he can bark at the defensive guys," said defensive star Terrell Suggs of
Flacco's leadership. "He came to a team that was primarily known for the
defense, but now, we've got ourselves a big gun over there that can not only
get it done, but he can win championships."
The 2012 season also marked the first time since 2002 that Baltimore did not
finish the season as a top 10 defense, so with Flacco locked up general
manager Ozzie Newsome turned his attention to retooling the defense, signing
former Bronco Elvis Dumervil to team with Suggs at the outside linebacker
He also added Chris Canty and Marcus Spears to the defensive line, inked
veteran inside linebacker Daryl Smith and secured the services of safety
Those bodies will be counted on to strengthen a defense that finished the 2012
season strong, but also lost its leading sacker (Kruger) and pass defenders in
Reed and Williams.
But having a host of new players could also help the Ravens avoid a "Super
Bowl hangover" that can plague teams.
"It's good to have been there. It's good to have experienced it. When you've
been down a road before, it certainly doesn't hurt. You kind of know that you
know the way," Harbaugh said of the advantages of having won a title.
"By the same token, we've got a number of guys that haven't been there. We've
got a lot of guys that are hungry because they haven't been there before, so
we'll just see how that mix plays out."
The Broncos, meanwhile, have had their own problems.
The presumptive favorites for the AFC crown have been hit with the
embarrassing Dumervil fax machine faux pas, mortifying front office DUI
arrests, defensive superstar Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating
the league's substance abuse policy and some serious injury problems,
including a season-ender for underrated veteran center Dan Koppen.
Despite all that drama, though, Denver does still look like a solid pick to
come out of the AFC. After all, the West is shaping up as a dismal division
with a team that finished 2-14 a season ago (Kansas City) pegged by most for
second behind the Broncos.
If the Broncos are able to keep 37-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning healthy
and upright for 16 games, it's almost a fait accompli they will be in the
postseason and that alone gives them a leg up on just about any other team.
Remember, though, Denver was a trendy pick entering the playoffs last year and
all but put the stake through the heart of the Ravens before safety Rahim
Moore let Jones pop the top on the defense late in regulation.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 5-0 on Kickoff Weekend, the second-best current
streak behind the Patriots' nine in a row to start the season. The Broncos, on
the other hand, are 33-19-1 in openers, a gaudy .635 winning percentage.
Baltimore leads their all-time regular season series with the Broncos, 5-4 but
its only previous win in Denver came in the playoffs last January.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
With Miller suspended and Dumervil now with the Ravens, Denver needs to
establish some kind of pass rush to dissuade the vertical passing game Flacco
loves. Former Charger Shaun Phillips, high-motor end Derek Wolfe and veteran
Robert Ayers, who is hampered by a sore Achilles, are three players who really
need to step it up in Miller's absence.
"Obviously, they have Phillips, who can do a tremendous job," Ravens offensive
coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "He's done it over the years. I think he may
have like 60-some odd career sacks or so. You look at Ayers, who is a guy who
can do some damage, but then also Wolfe. Wolfe does a tremendous job. He gives
you pressure inside as well. He's relentless."
On paper the Broncos have three solid corners in Champ Bailey, Dominique
Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. Bailey, though, will miss the opener with
a left foot injury and expecting the Denver corners to run with Smith and
Jones down the field is a little too much to ask anyway. Meanwhile, Moore and
fellow safety Duke Ihenacho aren't difference-makers on the back end.
"He's making great strides," Denver coach John Fox said when talking about
Bailey. "Whether that leads (to playing) for this week against Baltimore, I
can't predict that yet."
For the Baltimore offense it's all about finding an outlet receiver who can do
the dirty work while Smith and Jones stretch things. Boldin and tight end
Dennis Pitta, who is likely out for the season with a hip injury, were
Flacco's go-to-guys when he needed a big third-down conversion in 2012.
Veterans Stokley and Dallas Clark are possible security blankets for Flacco
this time around but while their resumes are long and accomplished both are
regarded as descending players.
"I still see Torrey Smith, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, big offensive line and we
know they brought in people that are very capable -- between young guys and
veterans," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "We think they are
a very good offense and we're getting prepared to go against them and
hopefully get them slowed down enough to help our team."
Denver's superior receiving trio of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and free
agent slot star Wes Welker figures to be too much for Ravens corners Lardarius
Webb -- who is returning after an ACL injury last year-- and Graham, meaning
superstar pass pusher Suggs along with Dumervil must force Manning to throw
the ball before he feels comfortable. Manning is far too smart to take many
sacks but if you force him to speed up his reads, he becomes mortal and his
pedestrian arm strength can be exploited.
Helping the Ravens will be the fact that the Broncos' running game is
nondescript at best with a committee approach featuring Ronnie Hillman, rookie
Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno. Hillman and Moreno are placeholder types
while Ball has a chance to seize the job, especially if the freshman can
handle blitz responsibilities.
Both teams love playing an up-tempo style on offense. Manning is one of the
best ever when reading things at the line of scrimmage and Flacco really
elevated his game in 2012 after Caldwell took over for deposed offensive
coordinator Cam Cameron and started trusting the University of Delaware
"(Flacco) has been making checks since he walked into the league and probably
before that, so that's not any different," Caldwell said. "What's happened is
that as growth has occurred, we've allowed him to have a little bit more
freedom, just in terms of what he does at the line of scrimmage and how he
goes about it."
Despite all the changes in Baltimore don't discount the Ravens as serious
contenders again this season, not with Flacco under center and Rice in the
backfield on one side of the ball, and Haloti Ngata and Suggs set to dominate
again for the defense.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 63-30 overall, tying New England for the NFL's
most total wins since his 2008 arrival, and have earned a playoff berth each
season while making three trips to the AFC title game and earning their Super
Bowl XLVII Championship.
"We are relentless in our pursuit to improve in everything we do," Harbaugh
said. "It's always about getting better than we were the previous day, the
previous practice, the previous game. The 2012 Ravens will walk together
forever. They will always be champions. The 2013 Ravens will determine our
legacy. It's a new team. We are prepared for the journey and ready to start in
Denver. We can't wait to play this game on Thursday. It should be a great
The Broncos won the AFC West for the 12th time in their history in 2012 and
consecutive division titles for the first since 1986-87. Chalk up a third
straight in what shapes up to be a dismal division but that's not what this
season is about. Denver must weather the storm without Miller early, keep
Manning healthy and make sure its set up for a deep run come January. Anything
less would be a big disappointment.
Revenge is a powerful tonic and the Broncos will be looking to right the
wrongs of last January. This contest will likely mean more to Denver and the
Ravens have undergone a few too many changes to hit the ground running.
"I think last year is last year," Fox said. "There's only one happy camper in
this league whether you lose the Super Bowl, you lose the championship game,
you lose the divisional round (or) you don't get in the playoffs. That's all
disappointing in my approach. This is a fresh season."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 27, Ravens 20
The Sports Network