Healthier Ravens head west for rematch with Manning, Broncos

When the Ravens absorbed one of their ugliest losses of the season on Dec. 16 against the Broncos, Baltimore was more than a little shorthanded.

Without four of their top six tacklers, their starting tight end and starting right guard, the Ravens were outclassed in a 34-17 defeat.

Of those six players, Baltimore will only be missing one (linebacker Jameel McClain) for Saturday afternoon’s divisional playoff. The Ravens have linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Bernard Pollard, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, tight end Ed Dickson and guard Marshal Yanda back in action to send a much healthier, more complete squad to the frigid turf in Denver for the rematch with the top-seeded Broncos.

Quarterback Peyton Manning and Denver ran out to a 31-3 lead after three quarters four weeks ago in Baltimore before essentially running out the clock. Manning knows he’ll be looking at a much different Ravens defense with Lewis, Ellerbe and Pollard back.

“Certainly, that’s three starters right there. That’s three excellent players, and three guys that they can do a lot of different things with,” Manning said during a conference call. “Three veterans, so there’s no question that every team wants to have their starters in there, and Baltimore got healthy at the right time. It definitely made a difference for them in the playoff game on Sunday.”

That should help counter some of the challenges the Ravens face against a Broncos team that not only has won 11 straight games, but will have a distinct home-field advantage tomorrow afternoon.

Aside from the thinner air in the heightened altitude, forecasts are calling for below-freezing conditions. From 4-8 p.m., temperatures are expected to fall from 15 degrees to about 10 with it feeling like 0 degrees by game’s end.

Playing outdoors in temperatures that cold is what makes football a bit different from other sports.

“It should be fun,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We haven’t had to deal with that much over the past couple of years. We’ve had pretty mild weather around here. But I think we’ll all adapt pretty well to it and just be ready to go. I don’t think it will affect us too much.”

What could have a greater affect is the fact that the Ravens are going up against the hottest and perhaps best team in the NFL.

The Broncos, winners of 11 straight games, finished the regular season with the league’s second-ranked defense, led by dangerous pass-rushing duo Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, and fourth-ranked offense, led by Manning. Their average margin of defeat during the winning streak was 15.6 points with every contest decided by at least seven.

Denver averaged 30.1 points per contest to rank second in the league, leading the NFL with at least 30 points in 11 contests.

Manning is at the center of it with 4,659 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Whether Baltimore wins or loses, this will mark the final meeting between future Hall of Famers Lewis and Manning. But Manning’s teams have held a noticeable advantage against the Ravens. The veteran quarterback is seeking his 10th straight victory over Baltimore (including playoffs) after dropping his first two career contests against the Ravens.

Lewis tried to deflect the attention away from the personal match-up when discussing his upcoming meeting with Manning.

“You hear that time and time again, and I think for my team, the thing is it’s not about facing Peyton, it’s about facing the Denver Broncos,” Lewis said. “As a team, that’s our No. 1 goal. Who are we going to play? Like I said, just sitting in the team meetings and just listening to everything, everything we’ve been talking about is going to play the team that has won 11 straight games. They have a very hot streak going right now. Arguably, they are the best team in football. If that’s what it is, then let’s line up and let’s be who we are, and let’s get ready to play the best team in football.”

But Lewis did stop to provide a few thoughts about facing Manning.

“It’s just two people who understand the game very well, and offensively, he understands what things he wants to see, and defensively, we understand what things we don’t want him to see,” Lewis said. “That’s where the chess match comes in. You give him what he wants, he beats you. You give him what he doesn’t want, then you beat him. I think that’s the way the game always plays out against us every time we play each other. We’re back to one of those classic games again.”

Even as the Broncos’ offense performed well in its regular season visit to the Ravens, their defense provided maybe the biggest mismatch of the contest.

Denver held Baltimore to just 278 yards, including a meager 56 on the ground. The Broncos sacked Flacco three times and forced the game-changing pick-six near the end of the first half.

Ray Rice’s 41 yards from scrimmage in the loss were his fewest of 2012 aside from the season finale, when coach John Harbaugh pulled the first-team offense after two series. Rice has his eyes on an improved showing, especially with Yanda and Dickson back.

“The Broncos - most sound team in football right now. I’m sure with the extra rest, they will be well-rested,” Rice said. “One thing I want to do in this game as an offense is to not let their defense dictate how we play. If you saw the last game with guys out - we put all of it in perspective. Before that turnover, the game was - we didn’t execute at a high level. Before that turnover, that’s when the turn of events happened with guys out.

“We aren’t going to make any excuses, but I don’t want to go into that game letting their defense dictate how we play ball. We have a certain way we play around here. It’s playoff football. We are going to go out there and give it our best shot, obviously, but my biggest thing this week is how we execute. They are a great defense. They are a great team. I’m not taking that away from them. They have earned the right to have their home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. With all our ups and downs, we have earned the right to get another shot.”

The key for the Ravens’ offense could be ball possession to keep Manning off the field. On Dec. 16, Denver dominated that area by keeping the ball for 38:34.

“Peyton Manning is lights out. Give the guy an opportunity, he’ll make you pay for it. But that’s when, like you said, as an offense, it’s our job to go out there and make it tough on them,” Rice said. “Time of possession is always huge when you’re playing against Mannings and Bradys. We have to go out there and execute, and then when we get in the red zone, we’d like to score - score touchdowns.

“That’s the games I’ve seen them lose - people score touchdowns in the red zone. They are able to sustain drives and the time of possession is different.”

In addition to the returns of several injured starters, the Ravens’ other help, especially on a short week after a Sunday game, could be that they game-planned for the Broncos just four weeks ago.

“It does (help). I’m sure it helps them, too. It’s an opportunity,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We have a lot of foundation of work already done. We have a lot of games broken down up until that point, so then we just added the games from there on out.”

Said Flacco: “They are kind of fresh in our minds still a little bit. But having said that, they’re a good football team, and we’re a good football team, and we have to go in there and play a good one against them.”