When the Ravens and Denver Broncos meet Saturday afternoon in an AFC divisional playoff game, the Broncos will be more than three months removed from their last loss.
During their 11-game winning streak to close the regular season, the Broncos scored 30 or more points nine times and outscored their opponents by an average of 15.5 points. Three weeks ago, the Ravens were one of the victims, losing 34-17 at home in a game that the Broncos led by 28 points heading into the fourth quarter.
Yet after emerging from a celebratory locker room Sunday following the Ravens' 24-9 wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts, veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin singled the Broncos out as the team he wanted to play. He also vowed that he and his teammates will "make it different" this time around.
The Ravens lobbed plenty of praise in the direction of the Broncos and their 12-time Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning but they also made it clear that they are happy for another shot at Denver, even if it means going to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to get it. Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m.
"Hopefully we take all the things that happened [Sunday against the Colts] and we take it into that game emotionally and carry it with us," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said today. "But this is a new game. It's a whole new environment. It's a whole new situation for us. So I think the slate is wiped clean in that sense. This will be a new challenge for us."
If the Ravens are going to make it back to the AFC championship game for a second straight year, they're going to have to do more than just build off the emotion generated Sunday in the final home game of middle linebacker Ray Lewis' 17-year career. They're going to have buck several trends that go beyond Denver's 11-straight victories since an Oct. 7 loss to the New England Patriots, the longest current winning streak in the NFL.
Manning-quarterbacked teams have beaten the Ravens nine straight times with the Ravens' last victory against the signal caller coming in a 39-27 win over the Indianapolis Colts during the 2001 season. That was Lewis' sixth NFL season.
Also working against them, the Ravens struggled on the road for much of the season. Their 4-4 mark away from M&T Bank Stadium was respectable, but they went 0-3 in road games against three playoff teams — the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals.
"History means nothing, that's it," Ravens cornerback Cary Williams said. "I could care less about history. Right now, it's about being the hottest team in the league. Whoever is playing their best football at this time is usually who wins the Super Bowl. As far as I'm concerned, numbers don't mean a damn thing to me."
At this point of the season, the Ravens insist that there is no need for added motivation. However, their loss to the Broncos on Dec. 16 was their third straight defeat and probably their lowest point of the regular season. Not only was the game not competitive in the second half, but the signs of frustration and desperation were everywhere for the home team.
Quarterback Joe Flacco was booed loudly after his interception late in the second quarter was returned 98 yards for a touchdown by Chris Harris. Safety Ed Reed tossed and then kicked his helmet on the sideline after he and Williams were beaten on Eric Decker's 51-yard touchdown catch early in the third quarter. Reed was also hurdled by Broncos' running back Knowshon Moreno earlier in the game. Offensive tackle Michael Oher fumed coming off the field that the Ravens were still throwing the ball late in the fourth quarter, resulting in sacks of Flacco on the final two players.
"We beat ourselves last game. We just didn't play an all-out complete game," said Ravens rookie running back Bernard Pierce who was one of the offensive stars in the Ravens' victory of the Colts. "This week, I think it's going to be a little different."
Reed called it a hard-fought game, but said, "We had some internal stuff going on that definitely affected the way we played. We were not a team that day at all."
The Broncos certainly took full advantage, controlling the game in every facet. They won the time of possession battle, 38:34 to 21:26. They out-gained the Ravens 350-278. Moreno rushed for 118 yards while the Ravens' Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice managed just 38 yards on 12 carries.
"We believe we can compete better against them," said Harbaugh, who called the Broncos one of the most complete teams in the league. "Give them credit, they came in here and played a whale of a football game. They kept the pressure on us, all three phases and in the end they were able to extend the lead. That's something that we're going to have to do a better job of dealing with."
Harbaugh certainly has a host of challenges in front of him. His team is the only one remaining in the playoffs which has a short week because the travel and the Saturday kickoff. The Patriots and Texans play Sunday afternoon in the other AFC title game.
Harbaugh also acknowledged that "there are some concerns" about the altitude in Denver and it's something that team officials have studied and will counsel the players on. The Ravens have not played in Denver since 2006 so some of their more prominent players, like Flacco, Rice and wide receiver Torrey Smith, haven't experienced it before.
However, the Ravens should get a boost by being back at full strength. Against the Broncos three weeks ago, the Ravens were without four of their top five tacklers (linebackers Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain and safety Bernard Pollard). Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and tight end Ed Dickson also didn't play. On Saturday, all except McClain are expected to go.
"It's got to be a positive," Harbaugh said. "We're more full strength now than we've ever been all year. So it's the right time to be healthy and I'm hoping those guys will have a big impact."
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