Game of Week 15: Broncos at Ravens
Denver Broncos (10-3) at Baltimore Ravens (9-4)
1. Contenders with questions
If the postseason began today (don't you always love reading those words), these division leaders would be in. The Broncos, in fact, already have clinched first place in the feeble AFC West, with the same number of wins as the division's other three teams combined. But even with Peyton Manning guiding them, the Broncos aren't flawless.
Denver's 10 victories have come against teams with a combined 39-65 (.375) record. Its three defeats have been against teams (Atlanta, Houston and New England) that are 32-7 (.821).
The Broncos are the league's hottest team right now -- they have won eight in a row -- but they have yet to prove they can beat a quality opponent on the road. In Week 2, they went to Atlanta and lost, 27-21, as Manning was intercepted on each of Denver's first three possessions. Three weeks later, the Broncos lost, 31-21, to Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxboro, where they couldn't find an answer for New England's fast-paced, no-huddle offense.
Although they hold a two-game lead over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the AFC North, the Ravens are coming off back-to-back defeats for the first time since 2009. They lost to a third-string quarterback (Pittsburgh's Charlie Batch) and a pair of rookie signal-callers (Washington's Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins). And now they have changed offensive coordinators.
The Ravens have performed inconsistently on offense -- quarterback Joe Flacco, in particular, has been up and down -- and the defense has lost a lot of its bite with an injured Ray Lewis out of the lineup and a less-than-fully healthy Terrell Suggs. Safety Ed Reed aptly summed up the Ravens' situation when asked about the Broncos on Wednesday.
"They have a great defense, they have great special teams and they have a good offense," Reed told reporters. "So if we don't play our best ball, and they do, we'll be on the same stick that we've been on the last two weeks."
2. He talks the talk
After last Sunday's 31-28 overtime loss to the Redskins, Ravens coach John Harbaugh talked about the importance of not overreacting. A few hours later, he fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. So much for walking the walk.
Despite all the speculation about why Cameron was dismissed -- the offense's inconsistency; a disconnect between Cameron and Flacco; an animated (argumentative?) discussion on the sideline between Harbaugh and Cameron just before halftime of the Redskins game that was captured by CBS cameras -- what matters now is how the Ravens go forward.
Harbaugh promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, the former Colts head coach who has been with the Ravens since last February, to fill Cameron's vacancy. While that might seem like a natural progression, Caldwell never has been an offensive coordinator during his 35 years as a coach, and he has never called plays in the NFL.
At this point, don't look for any radical changes in the Ravens' offense. The leash on Flacco will be neither pulled in nor let out as far as the passing game, and Ray Rice will continue to carry the running load. What might change is the pace. Caldwell has a reputation for favoring an up-tempo offense, and Flacco likes the no-huddle approach the Ravens used earlier in this season -- he feels like it fits his strengths -- but have steered away from lately.
"It's not a system change. It's not a philosophical change," Caldwell told reporters on Monday, after he had been named OC. "John sets the philosophy here of this team, and we follow suit."
It seemed like a curious time to make such a radical move, especially for a team that is 9-4 and very much capable of winning a second consecutive AFC North title. Harbaugh called it "a coaching decision, my decision", and said he did not consult Flacco. It makes you wonder what Harbaugh will try next if the Ravens' skid stretches to three games.
3. Miller time ... and then some
After earning NFL defensive rookie of the year honors last season, Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller is having quite an encore performance. He has 16 sacks (with one more, he will tie Elvis Dumervil for the most sacks in a season by a Denver player) and has forced six fumbles.
While Miller, Denver's first-round pick in 2011, has been the team's biggest playmaker from the last two rookie classes, other young players are making their marks. Of the 16 players the Broncos drafted in 2011 and 2012, four are current starters, eight are backups and four are on injured reserve.
In addition to Miller, right tackle Orlando Franklin (second round, '11), defensive end Derek Wolfe (second, '12) and free safety Rahim Moore (second, '11) were drafted in the last two years and are starting. Franklin has started all 29 games opposite left tackle Ryan Clady; Wolfe has started every game this season and has three sacks; and Moore has one interception, six passes defensed and is fourth on the team in tackles.
And don't overlook Chris Harris, an undrafted rookie in 2011, who is manning one of the cornerback spots. A versatile defensive back who can play outside corner, nickel corner and safety, Harris is one of only eight NFL players (and the only DB) with multiple interceptions (2) and sacks (2.5) this season.
Originally drafted by the Vikings in 1998, the 6-4, 300-pound Birk is in his fourth season with the Ravens. He is a six-time Pro Bowl selection, owns the longest starting streak among active centers, and last year was named recipient of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. Here are excerpts of his chat with SI.com.
What's the pulse of the team right now?
The pulse is good. Coming off two hard losses certainly can be rough, but in the NFL every week is a new challenge. To be successful as a player in this league, you have to be able to separate each week, and good teams are able to do that as well. Whether we won or lost last week doesn't have any bearing on this game.
Were you surprised when Cam Cameron was dismissed, or were there signs it was coming?
I was a little surprised because you usually don't see that during the season. At the same time, I know coach Harbaugh is always, every single day, trying to do what's best for the team. Hopefully, this change will give us a little bit of a spark. If you're around the NFL for very long, you realize that good coaches get fired all the time. Obviously, Cam is a great coach. Just look at where this offense was five years ago to where it is now and the expectations we have for it. Cam had a huge role in building that up. I think guys like Cam and respect Cam, but understand that this is a business.
At this point in the season, what can Jim Caldwell do to change or make the offense better?
It's obviously not going to change a whole heck of a lot. We're not going to put in a whole new system or anything like that. Jim will bring his nuances, his personality to it. We're not looking to totally revamp it; just tweak things here and there.
How important is it for the Ravens to win on Sunday?
It'd be big. It's a big test for us coming off two last-second losses. We're playing one of the top teams in the AFC record wise; I don't know if anybody is hotter than the Denver Broncos. It's the kind of game in December that is big for the standings and playoff implications, but it's also a great test to see where you're at ... because in December you're pretty close to being the team you're going to be.
What stands out to you about the Denver defense?
The two guys on the edge (Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil). They're great at setting the edge and, obviously, rushing the passer. Inside, they do a great job as well. They're an attack style of defense, they're aggressive, they're good at getting in gaps and disrupting plays. They're obviously well-coached. (Coordinator) Jack Del Rio has been around forever. He knows what he's doing, he knows what a good defense looks like, and he's got one over there.
What did winning the Walter Payton Award mean to you?
It meant a lot. When I was growing up, Walter Payton was the guy. When you played football, everybody wanted to be Walter Payton. Learning about him, the man he was off the field and how much he meant to so many people -- to me, that's the legacy he left. More important than football. I really think the spirit of the award is to celebrate all the great work that hundreds of NFL players are doing off the field and the way they're using their platform that football gives them to make a positive impact. For me to receive an award with Walter Payton's name on is pretty humbling.
You have started 133 consecutive games. How are you able to go out there week after week, year after year?
The grace of God, that's how (laughs). I can't give you a definitive answer. You do everything you can off the field to get your body ready, to get it in shape, to get it calloused to play a season. Obviously, there's a lot of luck involved.
You're a Harvard man, which carries a certain stereotype or perception. What's something about you that goes against that perception?
If someone saw me walking down the street, they probably wouldn't say, "There goes a Harvard guy." I'm 300 pounds, not very good looking, I rarely ever get dressed up. I guess that's the biggest thing. My first class at Harvard, I wore pink and black Zubaz (baggy weightlifting pants) and I sat next to a guy who was wearing a sports coat and an ascot. I don't know if I am the part, but I certainly don't look the part of hoity-toity Harvard.
Denver's Peyton Manning is the leader among active quarterbacks in almost every important statistical category. By the time he finishes his career, he might be the all-time leader in several of them. Here is where Manning stands among active and all-time quarterbacks.
|Peyton Manning's Record Book|
* (Minimum 1,500 attempts)
The Broncos have lost their previous five games in Baltimore. Of course, they didn't have the NFL's only four-time MVP as their quarterback in any of those games.
While it took him a few weeks to get into perfect rhythm -- sitting out a full season recovering from neck surgeries and then moving to a new team can delay that -- Manning looks just as dynamic as he was for Indianapolis for all those years.
It would be hyperbolic to call this a must-win game for either team, but it certainly has playoff implications. With Houston (11-2) having the AFC's best record and New England (10-3) owning a tiebreaker advantage over Denver, a loss could spoil Denver's or Baltimore's bid for a No. 2 seed and a first-week bye in the division playoffs.
The Ravens are a little more desperate, but the Broncos have Manning -- and he will be the X-factor in this game.
Broncos 28, Ravens 20
Last week: Patriots 27, Texans 23
Season record: 9-5