Familiar foes Ravens and Broncos kick off NFL season

Pittsburgh Steelers. Cincinnati Bengals. Cleveland Browns. And Denver Broncos?

All of a sudden, the Ravens seem to be building a brand-new grudge match, one that has been facilitated by a playoff classic and the NFL schedule-makers.

When the Ravens and Broncos kick off the NFL season Thursday, Baltimore will be seeing Denver for the third time in eight games. Unless you’re a division rival, that just doesn’t happen.

But here we are thanks to a late-season visit from the Broncos, the double-overtime AFC Divisional playoff and the season-opening made-for-TV rematch.

“It’s kind of a budding rivalry,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They’re one of the best teams, obviously. We’re one of the best teams. We love playing against them. I think they probably like playing against us, so it’s great.”

Last year’s playoff meeting will go down as one of the greatest games in Ravens history. If you need a reminder, quarterback Joe Flacco heaved a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds remaining in regulation to miraculously send the game to overtime. Less than two minutes into the second extra session, kicker Justin Tucker won it on a 47-yard field goal.

The Ravens went on to win their second Super Bowl while the Super Bowl favorites failed to win a playoff game.

But these teams both look different from the last time they met. Flacco will still be under center for Baltimore while Peyton Manning quarterbacks Denver’s offense.

Manning no longer has Brandon Stokley, who signed with the Ravens. And Flacco won’t have Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, with veteran Dallas Clark and rookies Aaron Mellette and Marlon joining Torrey Smith and Jones.

The defenses are where you’ll see the biggest differences. The Broncos lost linebacker Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens and fellow pass rusher Von Miller to suspension. Cornerback Champ Bailey is also injured. The Ravens underwent a much greater defensive overhaul (for more on that, click here), and will have cornerback Lardarius Webb returning to action.

So while the two teams have seen a lot of each other lately, it won’t likely help much with preparation for each other.

“There are a lot of changes - you’re right,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “It’s always something you can use, it’s always something you can take in from the previous game - the more you know an opponent. We still have to go out there and line up. Once the ball is kicked off - once the game has started - that last game is gone. We’ll see what happens in this one.”

Having changed sides, Dumervil and Stokley have the rare opportunity to play their first game for their new team against their old one. Players face former teammates and former teams all the time, but not usually so soon.

Dumervil is excited about it, even after the strange fax machine snafu that led to him becoming a free agent and bolting for Baltimore. He didn’t seem to think he’ll be treated too harshly by Broncos fans, however.

“The villain? The Broncos, man, I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I’ve been in Denver for the first seven years of my career. Now going there the visiting locker room is definitely different, but I’m excited. Like I said before, I’m happy to be a Raven. The decision was on me, and I feel good about it.”

With the additions of Dumervil and Chris Canty to a defensive front that already included Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Courtney Upshaw, the Ravens have the potential to have a feared pass rush.

The bookends of Dumervil and Suggs should be especially dangerous. But with limited action in the preseason, has the chemistry developed yet?

“We haven’t gotten going yet,” Dumervil said. “One, we’ve got a ton of guys; we’ve got Upshaw, we’ve got Haloti, Canty - we have so many guys. Our coverage is doing really well. So I’m excited to go out there with all my guys and really compete.”

And they’ll get their first extended shot at an offense led by one of the top quarterbacks in the league in Manning, who has a deep receiving corps that was improved further with the addition of Wes Welker. The Ravens are aware of what sets Manning and his offense apart from the rest.

“Tempo and communication are going to be big challenges for us,” Canty said. “We understand that they try to run an up-tempo operation and keep the defense off guard, get the defense out of position and taken advantage of (with) mismatches and things of that nature. We’ve got to be prepared for the tempo. We’ve got to also be ready to communicate and make sure that everybody is on the same page so our unit can operate as one (to) give ourselves a chance to be successful each and every down.”

The Ravens offense might have the opportunity to expose a depleted Denver defense. But Baltimore is coming off an uneven preseason of its own.

The running game never really got off the ground, Flacco was turnover-prone and the unit didn’t appear to find much of a rhythm until the third preseason game - and even then, it made a number of mistakes.

Tailback Ray Rice cautioned not to read too much into the preseason struggles.

“We were very vanilla in the preseason. Obviously, it was for a reason,” he said. “We would love to execute better - let’s not kid. We’ve made our mistakes, and we would have loved to execute better, but those game plans weren’t something that ... Coaches put time and effort into it, but they weren’t a game plan that we would take into Week 1.

“We had specific stuff that we were trying to work on, and we tried to get that done. We played some great defenses. It was a great challenge for us, but it was also a reality check for us to let us know where we were at that time. We’ve gotten a lot better since then and putting this game plan together to really let us know where we’re at.”

Looking far different from a year ago, Thursday will be the first chance to reveal whether different equates to better for the Ravens.

Either way, the team is just excited to get started.

“It just feels good to be in Week 1 again,” Rice said. “You start a new year, a new chapter, and you go through camp, and obviously, when you win a Super Bowl, you can say you feel the pressure, but when you get out of a training camp like we just got out of, and you build the camaraderie that we’ve built, just having Week 1 again is exciting. That whole defending the title is a long way from now.

“We’re still glad to come out of the preseason very healthy, and you still have to - if you want to call it ‘defend it’ - you still have to go out there and play the game on Thursday night. That just starts the chapter of a new year, and I’m excited for a new year and definitely new opportunities.”