Game of the Week: Broncos-Ravens
Consecutive wins over Dallas, New England, San Diego prove Denver's legit
Ravens chances might hinge on ability to adjust in second half
Kyle Orton, on a recent hot streak, gets to face struggling Ravens secondary
Breaking down Sunday's Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens game (1 p.m., CBS)...
Five Things You Should Care About
1. The Broncos are for real. People who continue to pooh-pooh the Broncos' 6-0 start are kidding themselves. Yes, they may be more solid than spectacular, and without question they lack a "marquee" quarterback, but the Broncos are one of only three unbeatens because they play physically, intelligently and with discipline. The doubts about their legitimacy were understandable after they opened the season with wins over Cincinnati, Cleveland and Oakland. But consecutive victories over Dallas, New England and San Diego should have lifted the fog of skepticism that surrounded them after a turbulent offseason.
2. The Ravens can't win if their defense doesn't show up. It's debatable which is more shocking: that the Ravens have allowed 100-yard rushers in each of their past two games after going 39 in a row without allowing anyone to reach that mark. That or Baltimore squandering fourth-quarter leads in each of its past two outings and on the brink of a third against San Diego before middle linebacker Ray Lewis made a great pre-snap read and dropped running back Darren Sproles for a loss on fourth down in the waning seconds.
The Ravens' inability to close out games is stunning considering they blew only two fourth-quarter leads last season. The unit lost coordinator Rex Ryan and linebacker Bart Scott to the Jets in the offseason, and there are rumblings that players are uneasy with the conservative play-calling of new coordinator Greg Mattison, who is in only his second NFL season. Whatever the issue, the Ravens have to be on their game Sunday because the Broncos' highest-scoring quarter has been the fourth. They've put up 50 points in the period, 17 more than in any other quarter. Equally notable is that half of the six touchdown passes Kyle Orton threw the past three games were in the fourth quarter.
3. Denver has been sensational in the second half. The Broncos have outscored opponents 76-10 following halftime, outgained them 1,368 yards to 605, and limited them to only two third-down conversions in 35 opportunities. Before you shrug that off, consider that they limited New England (fourth in scoring), San Diego (eighth) and Dallas (10th) to a combined three points after halftime. That's what you call getting it done. The players attribute their success to great adjustments by the coaching staff, notably head coach Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. But adjustments mean nothing if players aren't smart enough and talented enough to apply what they're taught.
4. Jared Gaither is expected to return after missing two games. The Ravens' talented left tackle missed back-to-back games with a serious neck injury but returned to practice this week and worked with the first team. Gaither says he expects to not only play, but also perform at the same high level he was at before the injury.
His return allows rookie Michael Oher to return to right tackle and gives the Ravens needed stability against a relentless Broncos pass rush that's paced by outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who leads the league with 10 sacks. He had four sacks against Cleveland and two each against Oakland, Dallas and San Diego, but was shut out by Cincinnati and New England. Dumervil is tied with former Giants end Michael Strahan as the fastest players to reach 10 sacks since the NFL made it an official stat in 1982. Strahan set the mark in 2001, when he finished with a league-record 22.5 that season. Some Broncos defenders say there's no reason to believe Dumervil can't make a run at the mark.
5. Can Broncos QB Kyle Orton thrive against Baltimore secondary? Orton is on a hot streak. Six of his nine touchdown passes have come in the past three games, and in each of them he completed at least 69 percent of his attempts. Now he'll face a Baltimore secondary that has struggled in recent weeks.
The Ravens not only surrendered three touchdown passes to Brett Favre in their last outing, but also allowed completions of 63 and 58 yards. Overall they have given up 22 completions of at least 20 yards, more than all but seven teams.
The finger of blame can't be pointed at one individual. Yes, cornerback Domonique Foxworth has been inconsistent since signing a free-agent deal that includes $16.5 million in guarantees. But Fabian Washington was so bad against the Vikings that he was benched early on, and replacement Frank Walker was burned for the 58-yard completion that set up the decisive field goal.
Denver has only 19 plays of 20 or more yards, which is middle of the road, but it does manage to produce such gains when it needs them most. To wit: Brandon Marshall's 51-yard TD catch to beat Dallas, and Tony Scheffler's 52-yard catch-and-run to set up the decisive touchdown against San Diego.
The statistics point to a Denver victory: The Broncos are allowing a league-low 11 points per game, don't turn the ball over and dominate opponents in the second half -- which is when Baltimore has been most vulnerable (on defense). But it's hard to see the Ravens losing four in a row, especially with the game at M&T Bank Stadium. My head says go with the Broncos, but my gut says take the desperate team. So I'm going Ravens 24, Broncos 20.
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