RAVENS PASSING GAME:
Quarterback Joe Flacco gets an opportunity to avenge one of his worst performances of his season. He completed just 20-of-40 passes in a regular-season loss to the Broncos and threw a costly interception that was returned for a touchdown. Tight end Dennis Pitta was one of the few Ravens who played well in that game, making seven catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Look for Flacco to continue to roll out of the pocket and take downfield shots to Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin.
BRONCOS PASSING GAME:
Peyton Manning hasn't necessarily put up huge numbers against the Ravens, but he has consistently found a way to beat them, winning nine straight matchups. He's tormented pretty much everybody this season, throwing a team-record 37 touchdown passes. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker combined for the third-most receiving yards in the NFL among teammates. The Broncos' offensive line gave up just 21 sacks all season, the second lowest total in the NFL.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME:
The Broncos shut down Ray Rice in the regular season, but they'll have to account for rookie Bernard Pierce as well. Over the past three games, Pierce has totaled 315 yards on 49 carries and figured more and more in the game plan. Rice certainly will be motivated after fumbling twice in Sunday's victory over the Indianapolis Colts. In cold and potentially snowy conditions, the Ravens need to run the ball effectively to take the pressure off Flacco and keep Peyton Manning off the field.
BRONCOS RUNNING GAME:
For all of Manning's brilliance, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Broncos' running game. Denver ranks a respectable 16th in the league on the ground, averaging 114.5 yards per game. With Willis McGahee on injured reserve, Knowshon Moreno has seized the opportunity, ranking sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (85.0) during the final six weeks of the season. That included a 118-yard effort against the Ravens. Jacob Hester has been a productive short-yardage back.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE:
There were plenty of bad days for this unit, and the Dec.16 game against the Broncos was one of them. The Ravens were gouged for 163 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis made 13 tackles in his return last week, but the Colts still rushed for 152 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. If the Ravens have a chance to pull off the upset, they're going to have to shut down the run and make the Broncos one-dimensional.
BRONCOS RUSH DEFENSE:
He doesn't often get mentioned with the other big names on the Broncos' defense but linebacker Wesley Woodyard had a breakout season, and he's extremely difficult for blockers to get to in the run game. He had a career-high 113 tackles this season to go along with 5 1/2 sacks and three interceptions. The Broncos ranked third in the NFL against the run in the regular season, allowing 91.1 yards per game and five rushing touchdowns. They held Ray Rice to 38 yards on 12 carries.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE:
The Ravens held Peyton Manning to 204 yards passing and one touchdown earlier this season, but it wasn't close to enough. Paul Kruger had 2 1/2 sacks last week, and he'll need some help if the Ravens are going to consistently get in Manning's face. The Ravens' cornerbacks have been warned all week about how many double moves the Broncos run. Lewis will get tested in coverage after Colts wide receivers caught six balls for 80 yards against him last week.
BRONCOS PASS DEFENSE:
The defining play in the regular-season meeting between these teams was cornerback Chris Harris' 98-yard interception return for a touchdown. But this group had its way with Flacco and the Ravens throughout. Harris and Champ Bailey clamped down on Smith and Boldin, and stud pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil applied heat on Flacco. The Broncos tied for the league lead with 52 sacks to go along with 16 interceptions.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS:
Special teams success carried over in the playoffs for the Ravens. Against the Colts, Jacoby Jones averaged 30 yards per kickoff return and 14.3 per punt return, Justin Tucker hit his only field goal attempt, Sam Koch averaged 43.3 yards per punt and the coverage teams didn't allow a single yard. Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that the thin air of Denver could prompt him to entrust Tucker with longer field-goal attempts than usual. Tucker is 4-of-4 this season from 50 yards and beyond.
BRONCOS SPECIAL TEAMS:
Much like the Ravens, the Broncos have a strong kicking tandem. Matt Prater set the team's single-season scoring record by a kicker with 133 points, and Britton Colquitt set the franchise net punt record (42.1) and allowed just 6.0 yards per return. Prater has missed just three of 43 career attempts in the fourth quarter or overtime, and he's 15-of-20 on attempts from 50-plus yards in his career. Trindon Holliday led the NFL with a 32.5-yard kick return average.
After limping into the playoffs losers of four of their last five games, the Ravens regained some momentum with their wild-card victory over the Colts. Bidding for back-to-back AFC championship game berths, the Ravens also have the added incentive of avenging a 17-point defeat to the Broncos four weeks ago. Much has been made this week about the difficulty of playing in a higher altitude, as the Ravens have not played in Denver since 2006. The Ravens are 1-3 all-time there.
The Broncos are the hottest team in the playoffs, having won nine straight games and outscoring opponents by an average of 15.5 points during that stretch. The Broncos are also 7-1 at home this season, with the loss coming against the Houston Texans. Denver had a bye last week, so offensive rhythm early in the game could be an issue. Health won't be.
The Ravens gave off a clear vibe this week that they are extremely comfortable and motivated by their heavy underdog status. That mindset could help them early, but it only goes so far. The Broncos are probably playing better than anybody in the NFL, and they'll have matchup advantages all over the field, not to mention that they're at home. No quarterback has tormented Lewis' Ravens more than Manning, so this would be a fitting end to an amazing career for the linebacker.