The Baltimore Ravens begin the 2013 campaign tonight, as the NFL’s only team to earn a playoff berth in each of the last five seasons. Due to a scheduling snafu with the Baltimore Orioles, the Ravens are in Denver for the league opener, which will start at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
These teams met in January on the same field in the AFC Divisional Playoff. In the fourth-longest game in NFL history, the Ravens won, 38-35, in double OT. Highlights from that dramatic contest included return specialist Trindon Holliday’s two TD returns (90-yard PR and 104-yard KOR) and a spectacular TD catch by WR Brandon Stokley (now a Raven) for the Broncos. Baltimore countered with a pair of INTs by CB Corey Graham, one for a TD (39 yards), as well as two QB Joe Flacco-to-WR Torrey Smith TDs (59 and 32 yards).
And who will forget the famed Flacco-to-WR Jacoby Jones 70- yard score that tied the game with just .31 seconds to play. The Ravens will take the field with a very different looking roster, especially on defense, than the one that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat last January. Gone are future Hall of Fame defensive standouts Ray Lewis (retired) and Ed Reed (Houston). In addition, no longer on the team is center Matt Birk, who also retired and WR Anquan Boldin, who was traded to the 49ers. Linebackers Dannell Ellerbe (Mia.) and Paul Kruger (Cle.) cashed in on their playoff success and the Ravens parted ways with safety Bernard Pollard (Ten.). Cornerback Cary Williams signed with the Eagles.
No other defending Super Bowl champion has endured as much turnover as the Ravens did this past offseason but the Ravens got younger and faster on defense. Baltimore added key free agents in hopes of re-establishing a defense that fell out of the top 10 for the first time in nine seasons last year. The Ravens ran more on reputation that actual play, as they finished ranked 17th in total yards allowed in 2012. The once stout run defense finished 20th, which prompted GM Ozzie Newsome to reconstruct his defense.
Here are the key offseason additions to the Ravens Roster: DE Chris Canty (NY Giants) – 9th Season, Career: 299 tackles, 19 sacks, 12 PD– OLB Elvis Dumervil (Denver) – 8th Season Career: 3 Pro Bowls, 264 tackles, 63.5 sacks, 17 FFs LB Daryl Smith (Jacksonville) – 10th Season Career: Jaguars all-time leading tackler (1,096), 21.5 sacks, 9 FFs DE Marcus Spears (Dallas) – 9th Season Career: 314 tackles, 10 sacks, 12 PD.
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The Ravens also added depth in the draft with Florida Gators safety Matt Elam and Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown. Both are likely to be key contributors—if not starters sometime in 2013. The Ravens lost TE Dennis Pitta for at least the first eight weeks of the season on the second day of camp with a hip injury but signed TE Dallas Clark (Tampa Bay), who is in his 11th Season. Clark is a former Pro Bowler who has amassed 474 catches, 5,322 rec. yards and 50 TD’s. With no WR other than Torrey Smith clearly stepping up in camp, Newsome signed former Ravens draft pick (1999) Brandon Stokley, who played in Denver last season and has 384 catches, 5,224 rec. yards and 39 TD’s. in 15 seasons.
Baltimore has won its last five season openers, producing the second-best current streak behind the Patriots’ nine in a row. Their opponent tonight, the Broncos are 33-19-1 in openers, which is an NFL-best .635 winning percentage. The 47 Super Bowl winners have a 38-8-1 record in Kickoff Weekend games of their title seasons.
Here are the Ravens keys to victory vs. the Broncos tonight:
Three Matchups to Watch:
Ravens Torrey Smith Vs. Chris Harris: Champ Bailey is out and that may not be a bad thing for Denver. Smith tortured the future HOF CB in January with two TD receptions covering 91-yards. Enter Chris Harris. He is not as physical or crafty as the veteran Bailey is but he has the speed to stay with Smith. Still, the edge goes to the Ravens WR
Broncos LT Ryan Clady vs. Ravens OLB Elvis Dumervil; During the 2008 draft, the Denver Broncos had the 12th pick and selected Boise State tackle Ryan Clady, a 6-foot-6, 315-pounder. Since then, Clady has played in all 80 of the Broncos’ regular-season games. Only cornerback Brandon Carr, now with the Dallas Cowboys, and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who was taken six spots after Clady can boast the same claim. However, Clady has battled a shoulder injury throughout training camp and although he has been practicing fully, that and left guard Chris Kuper’s ankle problem will make holding off Dumervil, as well as Terrell Suggs a very daunting assignment. Dumervil likely knows how to beat him after facing him in practice for the past five years, so this edge goes to Dumervil.
Broncos Center Manny Ramirez vs. Haloti Ngata; Ramirez moved to center after J.D. Walton had a second surgery in the offseason and Dan Koppen tore his ACL. Ngata has not dominated as much in games as he used to earlier in his career, mainly because he has battled injuries—but he could have an opportunity to do so tonight. Edge Ngata.
Prediction: Other than the WR position and QB, the Ravens probably have more talent man for man than does Denver. With that said, stopping the Broncos offense is the key tonight, which I believe the Ravens will do enough to win the game. Look For Flacco and company to establish Ray Rice early on the ground. There will be a lot of short passes to help the Ravens offense establish a rhythm and Flacco a little confidence– many of those could also end up in Rice’s hands. Remember, when Rice touches the ball more than 25 times, the Ravens win almost 80 percent of the time. They are 5-0 in openers with Flacco under center and will make it 6-0 tonight.
RAVENS 30 BRONCOS 24