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Saturday divisional round preview: Peyton Manning is the key to Broncos reaching AFC title game

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Peyton Manning is the key to a Broncos win (Getty Images)

Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
Saturday, January 12, 4:30 p.m. ET
Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium, Denver, Colo.

Both divisional playoff games in the AFC feature rematches of December blowouts. In Week 15, the Broncos went into Baltimore and trounced the Ravens 34-17. The Broncos jumped out to a 17-0 lead at halftime before building a 31-3 lead through three quarters. Peyton Manning passed for over 200 yards and a touchdown, the running game produced over 160 yards and two touchdowns and cornerback Chris Harris had a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown in the win.

Broncos head coach John Fox knows that it's difficult beating a team, especially a quality team like the Ravens, twice in one season.

"It’s all difficult," Fox said. "It’s not easy. You’ve got a lot of competitive people. It’s a competitive business. Beating anybody once is hard, so we’ll just focus on what it’s going to take for us to play well."

One of the biggest differences in Saturday's game is that the previous meeting was the first game after the Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who had never called plays before at the college or professional levels, replaced Cameron and feels a bit more familiar with his role this time around.

"There are some things I’m a bit more familiar with, but comfort and settled wouldn’t be an appropriate way to describe it," Caldwell said. "Settled in for a coach is probably not an appropriate word. I don’t think we ever feel comfortable and settled in. I’m a bit more familiar with some things, I can put it that way."

When the Ravens have the ball

In the first meeting between the Ravens and Broncos on Dec. 16, Denver's pass rush sacked Joe Flacco three times and hit him on nine other occasions. The Broncos defense tied for the NFL lead with 52 sacks during the regular season, with linebacker Von Miller (18.5) and defensive end Elvis Dumervil (11) combining for 29.5 and rookie defensive tackle Derek Wolfe adding six and middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard notching 5.5 of his own during his breakout season. Contending with the pass rush will be a challenge for the Ravens, who during last Sunday's 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts, unveiled a reshuffled offensive line. Michael Oher was moved from left to right tackle, rookie right tackle Kelechi Osomele moved to left guard and veteran Bryant McKinnie, who played in less than 12 percent of the offensive snaps during the regular season, started at left tackle. The reshuffled line and Caldwell frequently moving the pocket slowed the Colts' pass rush, which had just one sack and two hits on Flacco in 24 drop-backs.

The Ravens will likely move Flacco around some more this week to keep Miller and Dumervil off balance, perhaps using play-action to hit on short pass attempts to Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta. Boldin had five receptions for 145 yards and a touchdown last week, but all of his production came in the second half. Getting the ball to Boldin early against the Broncos should be a priority. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos' pass defense was weakest against opposing tight ends and Pitta had his best game of the season – seven receptions, 125 yards, two touchdowns – in the 34-17 loss on Dec. 16.

Another way the Ravens will attempt to slow the Broncos' pass rush is by running the ball more than they did in their regular season meeting. Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce combined for just 17 rushing attempts for 58 yards, but have proven to be a formidable tandem in the three games since. Including the final two regular season games and last week's playoff win over the Colts, Rice and Pierce have 81 carries for 495 yards. Baltimore's revitalized ground game will be challenged by a Broncos defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in Football Outsiders' run defense DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) during the regular season, allowing 100 or more rushing yards in just three games and only once during the team's current 11-game winning streak.

When the Broncos have the ball

Everything the Broncos do on offense begins with quarterback Peyton Manning, who deserves MVP consideration after completing nearly 70 percent of 583 pass attempts for 4,659 yards with 37 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions in 2012. Manning finished second behind New England's Tom Brady in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and DVOA metrics during the regular season and is the engine that drives the NFL's fourth-ranked offense in terms of total yard and second-ranked offense in terms of scoring and Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.

Manning developed a quick rapport with receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, two big, physical receivers who combined for 179 receptions, 2,498 yards and 23 touchdowns and both ranked in the Top 5 in Football Outsiders' DYAR metric. Without Lardarius Webb, the Ravens struggled against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers during the regular season and Cary Williams and Corey Graham will have their hands full trying to keep "Black & Decker" in check. The Ravens did a good job against Thomas in the first meeting – four receptions for 13 yards – but Decker torched Baltimore for eight catches, 133 yards and a touchdown.

Due to frequently playing with the lead, the Broncos were one of nine NFL teams to average of 30 rushing attempts per game this season. That average has increased in the six games the Broncos played without leading rusher Willis McGahee, who had 731 yards and four touchdowns this season and remains on the "Injured Reserve – Designated For Return" list with an MCL injury. With McGahee, who returned to practice this week and could be activated for the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos averaged 26.9 rushing attempts per game, but in the six weeks without him, are running the ball over 35 times per game, with a minor dip in productivity as the yards per carry has gone from 3.9 yards with McGahee to 3.7 with Knowshon Moreno getting the bulk of the carries.

How it could go

The Ravens will need to play a near-perfect game if they're to beat the Broncos, who may have the least amount of weaknesses of the final eight teams remaining in the NFL playoffs. Even if the Ravens stick to the running game and keep Manning on the sidelines, they'll need to score touchdowns to beat the league's No. 2 scoring offense, which they struggled to do against the Colts. Expect Manning and the Broncos to host the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.

Prediction: Broncos 31, Ravens 19

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