Monthly Archives: January 2013

For the Broncos, a puzzling, timid ending

“Thanks,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said afterward, “for bearing witness to one of the greatest football games you’re ever going to see.”

You could understand his enthusiasm without buying his analysis. From the Ravens’ point of view, Saturday’s four-hour, 11-minute marathon represented an unbelievable comeback that will go down in Baltimore sporting lore. From the Broncos’ point of view, the only thing remotely great about it was the play of a five-foot-five-inch kick returner.

The word that best describes the home team’s approach is timid, right up until the key play with 41 seconds left in regulation, when a 22-year-old safety suddenly turned into a risk-taker. All in all, the Broncos’ judgment — when to play it safe and when to take a chance — seemed poorly calibrated.

I was standing in the south end zone when their fingernails slipped off the ledge, in the waning light of a day so cold that field security personnel were deployed in full facial gear. Rahim Moore, the free safety still a month from his 23rd birthday, was cornerback Tony Carter’s deep help in a situation that demanded the soft, safe prevent defense that fans hate.

When Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco stepped up through an ineffectual pass rush and launched a prayer of a bomb up the east sideline toward speedster Jacoby Jones, Moore cut in front of the receiver to intercept or deflect the ball.

Too late, he realized he had misjudged the angle on Flacco’s rainbow. He stumbled backward like an outfielder who has misjudged a fly ball. The football sailed over both Broncos defenders and settled into Jones’ hands. He jogged into the end zone without resistance.

This was the Ravens’ impossible situation before that play began: Third-and-three at their own 30-yard line with 41 seconds remaining, no timeouts, down 35-28. They had already used a precious 28 seconds going seven yards on two plays.

The Broncos led the NFL in quarterback sacks this season. When they knew opponents had to throw, they feasted. But they got very little pressure on Flacco all day as the Ravens’ reconstructed offensive line held the Denver pass rush at bay. Flacco completed 18 of 34 passes for 331 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 116.2.

Which made him the best quarterback on the field by a substantial margin. This was quite a surprise considering how Peyton Manning had outplayed him a month earlier in Baltimore. Manning completed 28 of 43 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 88.3. Not bad, especially if you consider that his first interception bounced off receiver Eric Decker’s hands, but not exactly immortal, either, especially at the end.

Like the team around him, Manning seemed strangely timid for most of the afternoon. After that disastrous blown coverage in the final minute of regulation tied the game at 35, the Broncos got the ball back with 31 seconds showing and two timeouts. Manning took a knee and welcomed overtime.

Afterward, head coach John Fox explained this by pointing out what happened near the end of the first overtime quarter, when Manning threw behind Brandon Stokley into the arms of Ravens cornerback Corey Graham and put the visitors in position to kick the game-winning field goal.

“With 30 seconds it’s hard to go the length of the field and some bad stuff can happen, as you saw at the end of the game,” Fox said.

It was a contrived answer, like boilerplate when the actual explanation cannot be disclosed. For one thing, the analogy to the end of the fifth quarter was a poor one because the end of a fifth quarter in the postseason is like the end of a first or third. The game just continues. There’s no need to hurry up. So Manning’s mistake near the end of the fifth quarter was not a result of trying to do things in a hurry and bore no relation to the end of regulation other than the coincidence of a quarter winding down.

In addition, the Broncos didn’t have to go the length of the field at the end of regulation. They just needed to get into field goal range.

But they chose to be timid, just as they did in the series before Moore’s blown coverage. Having forced the Ravens to surrender the ball on downs, the Broncos took over at their own 31 with 3:12 remaining, leading by a touchdown. Two runs by rookie Ronnie Hillman, in for the injured Knowshon Moreno, gained 13 yards and a first down. The Ravens called their second timeout to stop the clock with 2:23 remaining.

The Broncos gave it to Hillman again, forcing Harbaugh to use his final timeout with 2:19 on the clock. They gave it to Hillman again, running the clock down to the 2-minute warning.

At this point, with the Broncos facing a third-and-seven, the Ravens no longer had any means of stopping the clock. The Broncos had a four-time Most Valuable Player at quarterback and one of the league’s most productive offenses. They needed a seven-yard pass completion to ice the game and move on to play for a berth in the Super Bowl.

Instead, they gave it to Hillman for a fifth consecutive time. He was stopped for no gain. They let the clock run, finally punting the ball back to the Ravens with 1:09 showing, setting the stage for Moore’s brain freeze.

“I just misjudged it, man,” the miserable young safety said afterward. “It was pathetic, you know? It’s my fault.”

The Broncos did what they could to deflect attention from Moore’s gaffe by talking about their other mistakes, and there were plenty to talk about. Champ Bailey, the normally reliable Pro Bowl cornerback, was consistently beaten by Ravens receiver Torrey Smith. Smith caught two touchdowns on him, and it could have been worse.

Von Miller, the Broncos’ Defensive Player of the Year candidate who finished the regular season third in the league in quarterback sacks with 18.5, eventually shared a sack with Elvis Dumervil in overtime, but was neutralized for most of the day by Ravens right tackle Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” fame.

Manning had a timid 6.7 yards per pass attempt, meaning he was usually checking it down, dinking and dunking, while Flacco’s remarkable 9.7 yards per attempt reflected Baltimore’s aggressive downfield passing game.

The Ravens’ three longest plays from scrimmage — the 70-yard bomb to Jones in the final 41 seconds, a 59-yard bomb to Smith over Bailey in the first quarter, and a 32-yard heave to Smith in front of Bailey in the second quarter — were all touchdowns.

The Broncos’ three longest plays from scrimmage were a 32-yard pass from Manning to Decker in the second quarter and two short gains extended by penalties. Manning showed no interest in throwing the ball deep.

“I couldn’t tell you what their defensive game plan was, but for a good bit there in the second half, (they had) a lot of two-deep safeties, man-to-man underneath,” Manning explained afterward. “They are going to take away some of those guys on the outside, which means you’ve got to beat them on the inside — the back out of the backfield, the tight end. That’s how you have to attack that defense.”

Maybe, but Manning threw to his backs eight times, his tight ends 11 times and his wideouts 24 times. He had only two pass plays that went for more than 20 yards.

Their big plays came not from Manning and the offense but from kick returner Trindon Holliday, who authored the longest punt return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history (90 yards) and the longest kickoff return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history (104 yards). No one had ever returned both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in the same playoff game. Trindon Holliday’s day will be in the record book for a long time.

If Manning lacked confidence in his ability to throw a deep, accurate ball in the frigid temperatures, he wouldn’t acknowledge it publicly. All season, he declined to discuss the progress of his comeback from four neck surgeries and the nerve regeneration in his throwing arm and hand it required, other than to say it was incomplete. We do know he decided to wear a glove on his throwing hand beginning with the final two regular season games because he was having issues gripping a cold ball.

My only basis for suspecting this was an issue Saturday is that Manning played with a timidity that simply isn’t characteristic of him. I find it hard to believe that any defensive game plan could turn Peyton Manning into Elvis Grbac.

For whatever reason, the Broncos’ stars for most of a 13-3 season were ordinary in the most important game of the year, and that includes Manning, Miller and Bailey. Following an 11-game winning streak to finish the regular season, they seemed oddly flat.

“If you don’t win, you get criticized on everything,” said Fox, dismissing all second guesses with a single swipe.

The Vegas sports book fantasy of Manning vs. Tom Brady in the conference championship is off the books. As they did in 1984 and 1996, the Broncos had both a playoff bye and home field advantage and still bowed out of the postseason at their first opportunity.

Manning called the loss “disappointing,” as great an understatement as Harbaugh’s analysis was an overstatement. To some extent, Manning, Fox and everybody else were covering for Moore, trying not to say, “Look, we had the game won with 41 seconds left, whaddaya want?”

Still, they also committed three turnovers that led to 17 Ravens points and kept the visitors in the game. Two of those were Manning interceptions, one of which deflected off Decker’s hands. The third was a Manning fumble when no one was open and he had to pull the ball down in the pocket. Again, we don’t know if his ability to grip the ball was an issue there. And the defense, ranked in the league’s top five, surrendered 479 yards and innumerable big plays that kept Baltimore in the game.

Fox is presumably responsible for the decision to have Manning take a knee with two timeouts and 31 seconds left in regulation. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is presumably responsible for the play calls with his team leading by a touchdown near the end of regulation, although Manning said the running play on third-and-seven with two minutes remaining was an audible on his part.

So you can blame the coaches or you can blame Moore or you can blame Bailey or Miller or Manning. Or you can blame them all. For 59 minutes and 19 seconds the only Bronco who played at a championship level was the kick returner. Then, 41 seconds from victory, a 22-year-old safety had a brain cramp that will haunt him and fans of his team for a long time.

Of course, you can also blame the officials, as many fans did. The crew led by Bill Vinovich seemed particularly inept, calling 18 penalties and constantly stopping the flow of the game. The Broncos seemed unable to get into a rhythm with their no-huddle offense.

On Manning’s first interception, the one that bounced off Decker’s hands and turned into a Ravens defensive touchdown, replays seemed to show Decker was hit before the ball arrived. Broncos fans found the absence of a flag particularly galling because the previous Ravens touchdown had been aided by a dubious pass interference penalty against Carter.

But frankly, the Broncos weren’t much better than the officials. Even after Moore’s mistake, even after they declined an opportunity to move the ball at the end of regulation, the Broncos had the entire overtime, slightly more than a quarter, in which to score three points and win the game. Of the 16 minutes, 42 seconds of overtime, the Broncos had possession of the ball for just 6:30. Their deepest penetration was their own 39-yard line.

“The worst thing about it is we’re going home off a play I could have made, and I’m here to make,” Moore said, standing stoically in front of his locker and answering every question.

“Coach Fox and his staff and everybody is relying on me to make that play. I didn’t make it. That’s what I do. I’ve been blessed with those skills and I didn’t use what I was blessed with today. But at the end of the day, it was a great season. I’m sorry it ended like this, but next year it won’t.”

Could be. The last time the Broncos were 13-3 and a No. 1 seed, the year was 1996 and the Jaguars came to Denver and shocked them. John Elway & Co. came back the next year to win the first of two consecutive Super Bowls. So maybe this year was their dress rehearsal for a similar run behind Manning. Certainly, they have an excellent young core of players.

But when it came time to rise to the occasion Saturday, the Broncos couldn’t do it. They were out-coached and outplayed by a team they had dominated four weeks before. And they never showed the swagger that defines a champion.

Goodell has no objection to a Super Bowl in Denver

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spent about forty-five minutes taking questions from Broncos season-ticket holders today a couple of hours before kickoff of the divisional playoff game at Mile High.

Asked about Denver’s bid to host a Super Bowl, Goodell said a lot will depend on how next year’s title game in New Jersey goes. It will be the first Super Bowl held at an outdoor stadium in a northern city.

“The answer to the question is we are going to do this for the first time next year in New York and it’s going to be a real test,” the commissioner said.

“My personal view is football is a game made to be played in the elements . . . but I don’t have a vote. If (the game at the Meadowlands) is a success, we may do some more.”

Broncos president Joe Ellis, accompanying Goodell on his pre-game rounds, drew applause when he interjected that a Super Bowl in Denver is “a no-brainer.”

Super Bowl sites are determined by owners of the thirty-two clubs.

Goodell also asked the season-ticket holders how the league can improve the in-stadium game day experience. He noted that the experience at home, through television, keeps getting better thanks to advancing technology.

Fans told him they’d like to see more variety of information on the video boards, more and better replays, and a sound system that allows fans to hear the referee more consistently when he announces penalties and the results of video reviews.

Goodell said improving in-stadium replays to the quantity and variety offered on television is “the No. 1 thing our fans want.”

Asked about his proposal to change the schedule from four preseason games and sixteen regular-season games to two preseason games and eighteen regular-season games, Goodell acknowledged he has backed off the suggestion due to arguments that it contradicts the league’s recent emphasis on player safety.

“We’ve got that on the table. We’ve also got the alternative, which is sixteen and two,” he said, referring to a proposal to delete two preseason games without adding to the regular-season schedule. Goodell said he understands why season-ticket holders resent paying regular-season prices for lackluster preseason affairs.

“We had the unilateral right to (go to eighteen games) several years ago,” he said. “We just did not feel it was the right thing to do.”

On the subject of player safety, Goodell said head injuries remain the main emphasis.

“We’re trying to take the head out of the game,” he said.

Asked whether the league might switch to Kevlar helmets, the commissioner said research continues but changes in equipment often have unintended consequences.

“I still believe it comes back to rules,” he said. “You have to have rules that take the head out of the game.”

Asked if kickoffs might be eliminated altogether, Goodell said increasing touchbacks by moving the kickoff up five yards  “reduced concussions by 50 percent.” Unless kickoff-related injuries spike up, the commissioner said the kickoff rules are likely to remain as they are.

Goodell was also asked whether the Pro Bowl will continue to be played the week before the Super Bowl, eliminating players from the Super Bowl teams from the all-star game, or moved back to its traditional place on the calendar after the Super Bowl.

Ratings have improved “very significantly” with the Pro Bowl before the Super Bowl, Goodell said, but scheduling is less of a concern than the quality of the game itself. Lately, the Pro Bowl has increasingly taken on the competitive tenor of basketball and hockey all-star games, in which little or no defense is played.

“We don’t like what they’re watching,” Goodell said. “My focus right now is not when it should be played but whether we should play it.”

Asked about his biggest challenge as commissioner, Goodell replied: “To make the game safer.”

One fan cited the knee injury suffered by Broncos receiver Eric Decker against Pittsburgh in the playoffs last season, asking whether discouraging hits to the head has produced more attacks on the knees.

“There’s plenty of room between the knee and the head, what we call the strike zone,” Goodell said.

The commissioner also urged the players’ association to approve blood testing for human growth hormone, as baseball’s players recently did.

“The players have continually raised issues saying there’s problems with the science of HGH testing,” Goodell said. “That’s just not true.”

Goose Gossage: ‘If these guys are elected . . . I would never go back.’

So no living player was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, prompting the New York Times to run a mostly-blank sports section front under the headline, “And the inductees are . . . ”

The failure to elect anyone from a star-studded ballot prompted more moaning and kvetching than usual about the annual balloting by veteran members (ten years or more) of the Baseball Writers Association of America. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them and you can see my ballot, along with those of other writers who have disclosed theirs, here.)

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who would have been elected overwhelmingly if it weren’t for their well-documented links to performance-enhancing drugs, received 36.2 and 37.6 percent of the vote, respectively, roughly half the 75 percent required for election. The 200-plus writers who voted for them (out of 569 ballots cast) and many others argue that a Hall of Fame without two of the best players in history would be a joke.

Like it or not, this debate has barely started. Bonds and Clemens will be on the ballot again next year, and the year after that. The issue will be revisited annually until they are elected or fifteen years have passed, whichever comes first. But the argument that their numbers are so big they must be accepted no matter how they were achieved stands in stark contrast to the fate of Lance Armstrong’s unprecedented achievements in cycling, which have been eviscerated in the wake of findings by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that he engaged in a sophisticated doping program.

Baseball has no such independent watchdog. Instead, it belatedly developed an in-house drug testing program after its principals — commissioner Bud Selig and then-players’ association chief Donald Fehr — were embarrassed in a public hearing before Congress. As a result, the sport and many of its apologists have developed a lengthy series of rationalizations for giving up on any attempt to make the distinctions among accomplishments that are standard procedure for sports that fall under international rules and the Olympic umbrella.

But baseball still has a big problem — the apparently universal antipathy for steroid users among existing Hall-of-Famers. If the argument takes hold that a credible Hall must include Bonds and Clemens, Cooperstown will face the threat of a boycott by its most cherished constituency — those already enshrined there.

One of the most outspoken is Colorado’s Goose Gossage, the power relief pitcher inducted in 2008, but a number of others have made their views known as well. In the wake of this year’s balloting, I asked Gossage what he thought existing Hall-of-Famers would do if Bonds or Clemens or both are eventually elected.

“I didn’t make it there last year, it’s the only year that I’ve missed since I got elected, but they had some discussion last year, and as I understand, there were a lot of guys that said they would not come back to the Hall of Fame,” Gossage said.

“It would be a black day not only for the Hall of Fame, but for baseball, if these guys are elected. I’ve got to say honestly, I would never go back to the Hall of Fame because I don’t think it would mean anything.”

In addition to the substantial minority of veteran writers that voted for Bonds and Clemens, many critics of the BBWAA say any attempt to exclude steroid users is an exercise in sanctimony. Baseball abided a pervasive culture of permissiveness during the steroid era and there’s no undoing it now, they say.

Existing Hall-of-Famers do not share this sentiment, at least in part because many of their accomplishments pale in comparison to the steroid-fed numbers put up by some of the leading suspects.

“There are those writers that think cheating is OK,” Gossage said. “We’re going to reward these guys? The last paddle that we have for these guys’ asses is an election to the Hall of Fame. They’re laughing all the way to the bank. They cheated. They, meaning Bonds and (Mark) McGwire, they broke two of the most sacred records that baseball has had, and that’s the (career) home run champion, which was Henry Aaron — and in my eyes Henry is still the home run king — and Roger Maris’ sacred record of 61 home runs (in a season), and McGwire broke that.

“I think these records ought to be reinstated because they were (broken) by cheaters. Are we going to reward these guys, is the bottom line, to Cooperstown? What kind of message is that sending to our kids?”

One person’s sanctimony is another person’s right and wrong. Advocates of letting bygones be bygones deride any reference to the message tolerance sends as hopelessly naive and sentimental. But many others still think it’s important. When this year’s ballot was released, cartoonist Drew Litton drew a classroom in which the teacher writes on the board, “Cheaters never prosper.” The kid in the front row replies, “Then why do they get on Hall of Fame ballots?”

Gossage thinks baseball’s current system of testing and punishment is still too lenient. He cited Melky Cabrera, the most valuable player in last year’s All-Star Game who was batting .346 for the Giants when he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was suspended for 50 games.

“What I don’t get is this guy got voted a full (postseason) share by the players,” Gossage said. “He got busted for PEDs and wasn’t around for the end of the season, nor the playoffs, and they voted him a full share. What are these guys thinking? We’re going to reward this guy? I wouldn’t have given him a nickel. If you get busted for PEDs, I think you ought to be suspended for the whole year . . . and a heavy fine. The second time, I think you ought to be kicked out of baseball.”

The Giants had only 45 games remaining when Cabrera was suspended and cut ties with him.

As a Hall of Fame voter, I made a distinction between players linked to steroids by substantial evidence in the public domain and players linked to PEDs merely by rumor. I asked Gossage how he believes writers should treat this latter group, which included Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza on this year’s ballot. Both of them did substantially better (59.6 and 57.8 percent of the vote, respectively) than Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmeiro, all of whom have been linked to steroids by evidence of one sort or another.

“Other than Clemens and Bonds, because we know that they did, Sosa, all of a sudden he goes to Congress and he can’t speak English,” Gossage said. “I think that these guys where there are innuendoes, there’s talk, whispers of these guys taking performance-enhancing drugs, I think if there is nothing directly linking them to them, I think you’ve got to vote with your heart and if they’ve got the stats, they should be in the Hall of Fame.

“On top of that, if they did do it, they’ve got to sleep at night. And they’re going to wonder the rest of their lives when that knock’s going to come or that phone call’s going to come that ‘Hey, here’s some evidence that you cheated.’ And if it was ever found out that they did cheat, then their plaques should be taken down at the Hall of Fame.”

Among both the public and the writers, outrage over baseball’s steroid era is dissipating. The belief that a Hall of Fame without Bonds and Clemens is somehow invalid could continue to gain traction over the coming years. But there is no sign yet that this view is making much progress among those already enshrined. Until it does, the election of a known steroid user such as Bonds or Clemens would likely create a major fissure within the Hall of Fame itself.

Broncos flashback: What not to do following a playoff bye

They won 13 out of 16 regular-season games, leaving them with the best record in the American Football Conference.

They were the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs, which earned them a first-round bye.

Everybody was looking forward to the third round, when they were expected to meet the No. 2 seed, the New England Patriots, with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake.

The year was 1996, and it didn’t quite work out that way.

The Jacksonville Jaguars, a 9-7 team that made the playoffs as a wild card, came to Denver on a 36-degree day in January 1997 having beaten Buffalo in the first round while the Broncos rested. The Broncos jumped out to a two-touchdown lead at the old Mile High Stadium, although a blocked Jason Elam extra point try and failed attempt to make up for it with a two-point conversion left their lead at 12-0.

Behind a 140-yard rushing effort by power back Natrone Means and a precision passing game featuring quarterback Mark Brunell and veteran receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, Jacksonville came back to outscore the Broncos 20-0 in the second and third quarters. Brunell’s second touchdown pass, to Smith, gave the visitors a 30-20 lead with just 3:39 remaining.

John Elway’s late touchdown pass to Ed McCaffrey was too little too late. The Jaguars left Mile High with a 30-27 upset, postponing Elway’s championship dreams for one more year.

Going into their first playoff game of 2013, the Broncos’ circumstances are about the same as they were 16 years ago, except that their first opponent will be a division winner, the Baltimore Ravens, rather than a wild card. So I asked Elway, who now runs the club’s front office, what if anything he remembered about 1996 that might be useful to know today.

“We did it in ’84 also,” he pointed out, harkening back to his second year in the league. “We were 13-3 and had the No. 1 seed and lost to Pittsburgh. So I went through it a couple of times.”

Actually, the Broncos were the No. 2 seed in ’84, behind the 14-2 Dolphins, but otherwise Elway’s recollection is accurate. The Broncos lost at home to the 9-7 Steelers, who went on to lose to the Dolphins in the AFC championship. It turned out to be Dan Marino’s first and last trip to the Super Bowl.

By contrast, in 1997, the year following the Jacksonville debacle, the Broncos made the postseason as a wild card, didn’t get a week off and blew the doors off the Jaguars, 42-17, on the way to their first Super Bowl title.

The following year, 1998, they went 14-2 and were once again the top seed. Just two years removed from a flat performance coming off a playoff bye, they came off their bye with a 38-3 thrashing of the Dolphins on the way to their second straight championship.

“If I could pinpoint one thing, it would be for us not to take the home field advantage for granted,” Elway said. “We still have to play good football. The home field advantage wins no games for you. Obviously, we play better at home and it’s a friendlier crowd, but the bottom line is you still have to go out and play well.

“In ’96, we had a good football team, but we ran into a team in Jacksonville that was playing very well. Those type things happen in the playoffs. That’s why we have to take care of our business, play the best football we possibly can and be ready. Only good teams make the playoffs, and so we’ve got to be ready for a battle.”

The Broncos have done an excellent job this season of concentrating on the task at hand, thanks in large part to Peyton Manning’s fanatical focus and the peer pressure he brings to bear behind it. That quality will be tested this week.

The entire football world is already looking forward to Manning vs. Tom Brady for the AFC championship a week from Sunday. It will be as highly anticipated a playoff matchup as we have seen for years, at least as anticipated as the Super Bowl that follows it.

Just one catch: Both teams have to get there first.

Fans and bettors generally assume that they will. Both the Broncos and Patriots are heavy early favorites — between eight and ten points, depending on the book — to win their divisional matchups this weekend.

When they beat the Ravens by 17 points less than a month ago in Baltimore, the Broncos looked like a clearly superior team. It’s worth remembering, though, that a single play — an egregious mistake by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco — made that game look more lopsided than it was. Having driven 76 yards from their own 20 near the end of the first half, the Ravens were four yards from a touchdown when Flacco threw an interception into the waiting arms of Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, who returned it 98 yards for a touchdown. What looked likely to be a 10-7 halftime lead for the Broncos became a 17-0 advantage in a matter of moments.

Change the outcome of that single play and the entire complexion of the game changes with it. The Broncos might well have won anyway. They ran the ball effectively and stopped the Baltimore running game. They held the Ravens to twelve first downs. Most of Baltimore’s points — 14 of 17 — came in the fourth quarter when the Broncos deployed a softer defense protecting a big lead.

Still, the dangers in the rematch are obvious:

1. Beating a good team twice in the space of a month is hard to do.

2. Ravens running back Ray Rice averaged just over 70 yards a game on the ground this season, which was exactly the number he managed in Baltimore’s first playoff game, a victory over Indianapolis. The Broncos held him to 38 in their first meeting. Can they do it again?

3. Flacco is a bit of a Jekkyl-and-Hyde act. There are times when he looks like he belongs in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. Like, Sunday, for example, when he put up a passer rating against the Colts of 125.6, the best of any quarterback in the wild-card round. Against the Broncos, he was a thoroughly mediocre 76.5. Can the Broncos’ top-five defense make him look mediocre for the second time in a month?

4. The Ravens finally have all their injured defenders back, including 37-year-old middle linebacker Ray Lewis, their inspirational leader. Will this allow them to play better defense against Manning & Co. than they did in Baltimore, where they gave up 350 yards of offense, including 163 on the ground?

Make no mistake: The Broncos should beat the Ravens. They’re better on both sides of the ball. They beat them handily in Baltimore, so beating them in Denver should be easier.

Of course, that’s exactly the attitude that can send you home from the postseason early, wondering what happened. Elway remembers the feeling.