In the midst of a career revival, Peyton Manning has led the surging Denver Broncos to the best record in the AFC and into prime position to reach the Super Bowl.
They'll open the playoffs against a Baltimore Ravens team looking to avenge a regular-season loss to the Broncos and prolong the career of their own future Hall of Famer.
Trying to help the Broncos to a 12th straight victory, Manning looks to continue his success against the visiting Ravens and Ray Lewis, who could play his final game in Saturday's divisional matchup.
Sidelined the entire 2011 season following a series of neck surgeries, Manning has even surprised himself by recording an MVP-worthy year in his first with Denver (13-3). The 36-year-old four-time MVP was tied for first in the league in completion percentage (68.6), finished second in passer rating (105.8), third in touchdowns (37) and sixth in yards (4,659) for a team that averaged 30.1 points and won its last 11 games to claim the top seed in the conference.
The run is the team's longest since an 18-game winning streak Dec. 21, 1997-Dec. 6, 1998, that included playoffs.
"It's been quite a year for me," Manning told the Broncos' official website. "I remember one year ago I was in a hospital bed watching opening day, so there's a little reminder there of how far I've come."
It would seem fitting if Manning could complete this improbable journey by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in his native New Orleans on Feb. 3. The next step to getting there is winning his first playoff game since his last with Indianapolis, a 17-16 loss to the New York Jets on Jan. 8, 2011.
Manning and the Broncos have had two weeks to prepare for Baltimore (11-6), a 24-9 winner over the Colts on Sunday in Lewis' final home game before his pending retirement after 17 seasons.
Manning has won nine straight overall versus the Ravens, including two playoff matchups despite throwing three interceptions with two touchdowns and posting a 68.3 rating in the postseason games.
He was 17 of 28 for 204 yards with a touchdown in a 34-17 win at Baltimore in Week 15. Lewis, safety Bernard Pollard, guard Marshal Yanda and tight end Ed Dickson missed that contest, but all are now healthy.
Two of the game's finest butting heads for the final time will dominate the headlines, but Manning would rather keep his respect for Lewis private.
"I think Ray Lewis knows how I feel about him and I think I'll share that with him at the appropriate time," he said.
Lewis' focus is on helping Baltimore reach the AFC championship game for a second straight season.
"It's just one of those chess matches," said the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, who recorded 13 tackles Sunday in his return from a torn triceps that sidelined him for 12 weeks. "(Manning) knows me very well. I know him very well. ... But at the end of the day, it's not about me and me and Peyton. It's about their team against our team.
"I love our team right now.''
After totaling 441 yards and limiting star rookie Andrew Luck and the Colts to three field goals, the Ravens are only looking forward and not concerned about last month's loss to Denver.
"We all have a goal in mind, and we're focused in on that goal,'' said receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught five passes for a franchise-high 145 yards and a touchdown last week.
The Broncos also expect to face a better team than the one that managed 278 yards in the December matchup.
"It means nothing that we beat them in the regular season," said Denver receiver Brandon Stokley, a member of the Ravens when they beat the Broncos 21-3 in a wild-card game during their 2000 Super Bowl season. "I know we beat them pretty good, but in the playoffs it's just a different game."
Though the Broncos have homefield advantage, expected game-time temperatures in the low 20s may not bode well for them, as Manning is 0-3 in playoff games in which the temperature at kickoff is less than 40 degrees. He's a combined 64 for 120 for 612 yards with one TD and seven INTs in those contests, and will play with a glove on his throwing hand.
Manning, who hasn't worn anything on his hands before this season, conceded the glove is a concession to the altered feel of his grip, especially in cold weather, after his neck surgeries.
For that reason, the Ravens could again receive a steady dose of Knowshon Moreno, who ran for 115 yards and a TD against them last month. Even with Lewis in the lineup, the Ravens allowed 152 rushing yards last week.
Denver has yielded 237.3 total yards and 13.5 points during a six-game home winning streak.
"You just have to be ready to go into a hostile environment and play your best football," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who's 2-1 against the Broncos but is facing them on the road for the first time.
Baltimore's Ray Rice, who lost two fumbles last week after losing one during the regular season, was held to 38 yards on 12 carries against the Broncos in Week 15. He's averaged 58.8 yards and scored one rushing TD in his last six postseason contests.
Flacco improved to 2-0 at home in the playoffs by throwing for 282 yards with two TDs and no interceptions against the Colts. However, he's lost his last two postseason road contests, passing for 431 yards with three touchdowns and two picks.
Flacco was 20 of 40 for 254 yards with two TDs and one INT versus Denver last month.
Baltimore tight end Dennis Pitta caught both touchdowns and had a career-high 125 yards in that contest. Denver's Eric Decker had eight receptions for 133 yards and a score.
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