Can Broncos avenge heartbreaking loss to Ravens tonight?

As a Cleveland fan, I have very little sympathy for Broncos fans after watching John Elway in the 1980s. But any fan can appreciate the agony of losing the way the Broncos did last year in the playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens. With less than a minute left in regulation time Joe Flacco threw a bomb to Jacoby Jones to score the tying touchdown. Inexplicably the Denver defenders let him get behind them. Then John Fox went into Marty Schottenheimer mode and got ultra-conservative, not letting Peyton Manning take a shot to drive for a winning field goal. It’s one of those games that will haunt Broncos fans forever.

Now we have a new season, and fans will be anxious to get back in the action tonight when the Ravens return to Denver for the rematch. You can enjoy NFL betting at Sportsbook and other sites around the web. The Broncos opened as big favorites with spreads up to 9.5 points, but money has clearly come in on the Ravens as the spread has come back to 7.5. It’s understandable that the Broncos are favored, as Peyton Manning has a new weapon in Wes Welker and the Ravens had to completely rebuild their defense. There might be more talent on this year’s Ravens defense, but they have not played together in a real game and the leadership of Ray Lewis is gone.

But there are question marks with both teams. For the Broncos, Champ Bailey is out with a foot injury and Von Miller is suspended for six games. The Miller loss is huge while Bailey is getting old so I’m not sure he’s much of a loss. Then we have Elvis Dumervil, who now plays for the Ravens and helped mitigate the loss of some of their defensive players from last year like Paul Krueger. So for the Broncos young players like Derek Wolfe, Robert Ayers and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will need to play well.

For the Ravens, their losses aren’t just on defense. While Jacoby Jones was the hero last year, Anquan Boldin as the true stud of that offense. Can the Ravens keep things going on offense without him? They have talent, but now there will be more pressure on Joe Flacco, especially after the loss of tight end Dennis Pitta.

It should be a great game, and now the spread seems more in line with reality. It looks like a tough pick.

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NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hits from the Divisional Round

+ Everyone thought the Ravens’ game plan on Saturday would be to take the pressure off Joe Flacco’s shoulders by making Ray Rice the focal point of the offense. Instead, John Harbaugh and Jim Caldwell put the game in their quarterback’s hands and Flacco repaid them out dueling Peyton Manning. Outside of two errant deep passes to Torrey Smith, Flacco was perfect. He relentlessly challenged Denver’s secondary downfield (his 9.7 YPA average was eye popping) and he used the entire field to orchestrate Baltimore’s offense. In the past two weeks we’ve seen one coaching blunder after another. But Harbaugh and Caldwell went against conventional wisdom and thanks to the play of their embattled signal caller, they’ll be heading to Foxboro next weekend. It’s good to see an aggressive game plan rewarded.

+ One other note on Flacco: His best throw didn’t come on a scoring play, nor did it lead to a score. On the second possession of overtime and his team backed up on a 3rd and 13, Flacco threw a frozen rope to tight end Dennis Pitta for a 24-yard gain while standing in his own end zone. Credit Pitta for making a spectacular adjustment on the catch, but Flacco put the ball where only his tight end could come down with the pass. Granted, four plays later the Ravens punted but if Flacco doesn’t convert on that third down maybe Denver uses marches up a short field for the game-winning score.

+ Manning’s crucial interception in overtime may have been a result of the Hall of Famer trying to do too much. You never see Peyton throw across his body while on the move, but he got impatient while attempting to make a play. That said, blame can be spread throughout the entire Denver locker room…

+…Manning’s interception directly led to Baltimore’s game-winning field goal but Denver was undone by its secondary long before Corey Graham accepted Peyton’s gracious gift. There’s simply no excuse for how safety Rahim Moore played Jacoby Jones’ 70-yard touchdown reception at the end of regulation. It wasn’t as if the Ravens caught the Broncos in a coverage breakdown – Moore just screwed up. If he’s two yards deeper, there’s a good chance he intercepts that pass and then nobody’s talking about Manning’s interception because it wouldn’t have existed.

+ … Moore isn’t the only member of Denver’s secondary that deserves a scolding, either. Champ Bailey had yet another solid season but he was torched for both of Torrey Smith’s touchdowns and also allowed 128 receiving yards in what was easily his worst game of the year. Jack Del Rio and John Fox have left Bailey on an island throughout the year and the results have been positive. But while hindsight is always 20/20, one would have thought that following Smith’s 59-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter that Denver’s coaching staff would have given Bailey more help. They didn’t, and they paid the price.

+…Then there’s Fox himself. Some are criticizing him for taking the ball out of Manning’s hands on that 3rd-and-7 play with just over a minute left in the game. But at least his rationale was just: Run the ball and force the Ravens to march 70-plus yards for a touchdown with a minute and no timeouts. Nobody could foresee Baltimore throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass three plays later, so it’s hard to eat Fox’s lunch for that decision. That said, his choice not to give Manning a chance to march the Broncos into field goal range with 37 seconds remaining in regulation and two timeouts was incomprehensible. This was proven less than 24 hours later when Matt Ryan drove the Falcons to a game-winning field goal with two timeouts and 31 seconds on the clock. The two situations weren’t exactly the same, but if Ryan could accomplish the feat in two plays, Fox should be embarrassed for not giving his living legend of a quarterback even an opportunity to pull off the same heroics.

+ Not that it matters now, but without Trindon Holliday’s record-setting day, is the game in Denver even that close? Take away his two touchdowns and the Ravens might not even need an improbable Jacoby Jones touchdown or a Justin Tucker 47-yard field goal to win.

+ Two underlying storylines in Baltimore’s upset victory: The Ravens’ run defense and their offensive line. After surrendering 152 rushing yards last week to the Colts, the Broncos running game was a big failure on Sunday (they rushed for 125 yards but at 3.0 yards per clip). Also, thanks to Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, Denver has one of the best pass rushes in the game. But for all intents and purposes, the duo had a quiet day against Baltimore’s revamped offensive line (which has now played well in back-to-back weeks).

+ Even if the 49ers were to lose to the Falcons in the NFC Championship, nobody will question Jim Harbaugh’s decision to replace Alex Smith after the show Colin Kaepernick put on versus Green Bay. It showed some resiliency on Kaepernick’s part to throw for 263 yards, rush for a NFL-record 183 yards, and record four total touchdowns after throwing that early pick-six to Sam Shields. Instead of allowing his emotions to get the best of him, he settled in and let his instincts take over…

+ …Not to take anything away from Kaepernick but where were the Packers’ adjustments? One would have thought Capers would have changed something at halftime in efforts to slow Kaepernick down and instead, the quarterback was still running free well into the fourth quarter. Granted, coordinators can only put their guys in position to make plays. It’s up to the players to execute the game plan and for the likes of Erik Walden, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson, they didn’t. I’m just not sure what the game plan was to begin with.

+ Lost in Kaepernick’s big night was how well Vic Fangio’s defense played. When the Niners went with press man on the outsides, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers did a nice job of not allowing the Packers’ receivers to get a free release. And when Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith brought pressure, it completely took Aaron Rodgers out of his game. It wasn’t as if Rodgers played poorly – San Francisco just never allowed him to get into a rhythm.

+ Aside from Kaepernick turning Candlestick Park into his own personal jungle gym, the key to San Francisco’s victory was its dominance up front on both sides of the ball. Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were unstoppable forces in the running game and immovable options in pass protection. There was plenty of great offensive line play this weekend but the best work may have been done on Saturday night by those two players.

+ Regardless of how fortunate the Falcons are to be advancing to the NFC Championship Game, it’s hard not to feel elated for Tony Gonzalez. Assuming he stays true to his word and retires at the end of the season, that man was 31 seconds away from never tasting postseason victory. Thankfully he doesn’t have to worry about what that would have felt like.

+ It’s easy to get swept up in the emotions of the game but Mike Smith blew it by calling his last timeout with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. Chances are the Seahawks would have still burned a timeout anyway but shame on Smith for not putting Pete Carroll in that position.

+ Matt Bosher either had a vacation to Cabo lined up next weekend because he nearly handed the Seahawks a victory by shanking two punts and then dribbling an impromptu onsides kick at the end of the game. For a second I swore the kid had Seattle on the money line.

+ Nobody should ignore the fact that Matt Ryan helped the Falcons blow a 20-point fourth-quarter lead on Sunday. The interception to Earl Thomas was brutal and his sudden inability to move the ball in the fourth quarter should come into question as well. But it is remarkable what he can do with less than two minutes remaining in a game that his team is trailing. He’s unflappable in those situations and nine times out of 10, he’s going to put the Falcons in position to win. Jacquizz Rodgers’ kick return was key in setting up that game-winning drive, but it took Ryan only two plays to erase everything the Seahawks accomplished in the fourth quarter. If nothing else, Ryan remains one of the most clutch performers in the game.

+ Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did a great job not over thinking the game plan for Sunday. He wanted to take advantage of undersized rookie Bruce Irvin and that’s what he did, constantly running Rodgers and Michael Turner at the edge of Seattle’s defense. The Falcons haven’t run the ball effectively all season and Turner has looked like a back running with cement blocks for feet. But neither was the case on Sunday.

+ The Falcons actually might be the most predictable team in the NFL, you just have to understand their recipe for success: Dominant for two quarters, take two quarters off, give Matt Ryan the ball with at least 30 seconds left on the clock and make sure Matt Bryant is properly stretched out. Amazement, heartburn, jubilation, repeat.

+ Russell Wilson is special. After a shaky first half he was brilliant in the final quarters, including going 10-for-10 for 185 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Seahawks back from a 20-0 deficit. Granted, he had six days to find receivers that were generally covered by Atlanta defenders, but he also once again did a great job eluding pass rushers and buying himself more time. Both he and the Seahawks have a bright future.

+ Wilson and Kaepernick are quarterbacks first – not mobile players that happen to play the quarterback position. I watched both of those players force the defense to unveil where the blitz was coming from this weekend by making pre-snap adjustments. They’re intelligent players with big arms that just so happen to be blessed with mobility and speed. It’s not as if they’re beating teams because of their athleticism alone, like Michael Vick used to do. They’re beating you well before they take the snap.

+ The outcome in Atlanta was yet another example of why coaches shouldn’t waste time attempting to freeze a kicker. Why give a veteran like Matt Bryant an extra 20 seconds to compose himself when he’s already feeling the burden of an entire season on his shoulders? Carroll’s charade following Bryant’s missed practice attempt was silly and he deserved to watch the next kick sail through the uprights.

+ If anyone is looking for Zach Miller he can be found running free in Atlanta’s secondary. He’ll be there for the rest of the day.

+ Tom Brady loses Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead so he throws for 344 yards and three touchdowns…including two to his backup running back. The guy is incredible.

+ This is how good New England’s offense is: The Pats didn’t score until 1:28 left in the first quarter and still wound up with 41 points.

+ On a weekend when both the Broncos and Falcons blew late leads, the Patriots were still scoring with less than two minutes remaining and up by 10. Bill Belichick never takes his foot off the gas and his players revel in his philosophy.

+ Matt Schaub threw for 343 yards but both of his touchdowns came after the Patriots went up 38-13 and he also threw a brutal interception to kill a drive in the second half. Over the past month the Texans had trouble scoring inside the red zone and Schaub was a big reason for it. Only when it was too late did he respond with scores, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether he’s the right man to lead a talented team to the Super Bowl.

+ I thought Wade Phillips’ defense would respond to giving up 42 points in that Week 14 loss to New England in the regular season. Well, they did – by allowing 41 more points. The linebackers and defensive line couldn’t stop the run, there was virtually no pressure on Brady, who promptly dissected their secondary (again). This was all after Gronkowski and Woodhead left the game in the first half.

+ After that crap-fest of a wild card weekend, the Divisional Round was glorious. Upsets, comebacks, points galore, record-setting moments – how could you have not loved every second of this weekend? Championship Sunday? Can’t wait, Bart Scott.

+ Clearly oddsmakers weren’t phased by the Ravens’ upset of the Broncos because Baltimore has opened as a 9.5-point underdog versus the Patriots for the AFC title game. That’s with Gronkowski likely being sidelined for New England.

+ As for the NFC title game, the Niners opened as 3.5-point favorites versus the Falcons. What’s funny is that if Atlanta continued to dominant Seattle, the Falcons likely would have only been 1-point dogs on Championship Sunday. Perception is everything, isn’t it?

Bailey puts his Colorado home up for sale

Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey glances down at the Seattle Seahawks as they warm up at Invesco Field at Mile High on September 19, 2010 in Denver. . UPI/Gary C. Caskey

Ready for a good news/bad news scenario, Bronco fans?

The good news is that Champ Bailey and your team are talking contract again.

The bad news is that according to Inside the NFL’s Josina Anderson, the 10-time Pro Bowler just put his Colorado home up for sale. If Bailey thought the Broncos were willing to offer him more than a one-year deal, then it seems unlikely that he’d stick a for sale sign in his front yard.

One option for Denver is to assign Bailey the franchise tag and lock him in for one year. But the Broncos don’t want to pay a 32-year-old corner $15 million for one season, even if he is Champ Bailey.

The other problem is that the Broncos shouldn’t be playing for 2011. I understand that in today’s NFL, turnarounds can happen quickly but this team needs an upgrade at every level defensively. Even if they were to re-sign Bailey, nothing says that the Broncos won’t take someone like LSU’s Patrick Peterson with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft. They need to build for the future.

As hard as it would be, maybe the Broncos would be better off allowing Bailey to go to a contender that will shell out big money for 2-3 years. No team wants to let talent walk out the door and Bailey is the consummate professional. But teams aren’t created equal. Some need one or two pieces to make a Super Bowl run, while others are starting over. The Broncos are in rebuilding mode and unless they seriously believe they can build a winner in the next two years, why pay Bailey to hang around?

The Broncos’ upcoming contract dilemma with Bailey and Dumervil

Mile Klis of the Denver Post brought up an interesting point recently in regards to Elvis Dumervill and Champ Bailey’s contract situations.

Both players will become free agents at the end of the season and both could command salaries that push north of $10 million per season. If the Broncos give one player a long-term deal, will they be able to do the same with the other?

Dumervil is 26 and coming off a season in which he led the league in sacks with 17. Bailey is 32, but is still playing at a Pro Bowl level, is a fan favorite and recently told the media that he doesn’t plan on hanging ‘em up for at least another five more years.

Generally, teams pay younger players first and legit pass-rushers like Dumervil are hard to come by. But Pro Bowl caliber cornerbacks don’t fall off trees either and Bailey hasn’t shown signs of decline.

What is owner Pat Bowlen to do? If he pays both of them market value, he’ll cripple his team’s budget and the Broncos probably wouldn’t be able to be major players in free agency next year. If he only pays one of them and allows the other to walk, he’ll have an angry fan base on his hands and worse, he’ll have a huge hole to fill defensively. If he gives one player a long-term deal and franchises the other, he could sabotage his short-term budget.

Even though Dumervil has toed the company line his entire career, this is one of the reasons why the Broncos have chosen to wait to give him a long-term contract. If he plays well this season, then they’ll have a huge decision to make at the end of the year. If he doesn’t play well, they might have an excuse to let him hit the free agent market and then they can invest long-term money in Bailey.

Either way, it doesn’t appear that Bowlen and the Broncos are ready to make a decision, which is why Dumervil still doesn’t have a multi-year deal.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

2009 NFL Picks & Predictions: Week 6

Giants (5-0) at Saints (4-0), 1:00PM ET
Hopefully readers will give me credit for attempt to predict the toughest games this week. No? All right then…This is by far the hardest game to predict on the Week 6 schedule, so let’s look at some of the facts. The Saints should be well rested coming off a bye and are playing at home. They have the edge then right? They should, but don’t forget that the Giants essentially had a bye themselves since they played Oakland last week and New York always travels well. Drew Brees hasn’t seen a pass rush as good as the Giants’ all season and I think New York will disrupt his rhythm. And while Darren Sharper and the New Orleans defense is playing out of their minds right now, Eli Manning won’t make the same mistakes rookie Mark Sanchez did two weeks ago when the Saints earned a victory against the Jets. I like Brandon Jacobs to get back on track and for the G-Men to pull off a huge win at the Superdome.
Odds: Saints –3.
Prediction: Giants 27, Saints 24.

Ravens (3-2) at Vikings (5-0), 1:00PM ET
So, are the Ravens just in a slump or were they overrated to begin with? Give yourself a gold star if you answered, “A little of both.” Baltimore lost several defensive starters and their coordinator Rex Ryan in the offseason – they were due to have a setback at some point. While I think the Ravens are a solid football team, I don’t like this matchup for them. They’re reeling after two straight losses and play an unfamiliar foe in a hostile environment. I also don’t like the matchup between the Ravens’ receivers and the Vikings’ corners and wonder how Joe Flacco will do once Ray Rice and the running game is shut down by Minnesota’s Williams Wall. As long as Brett Favre doesn’t get turnover-happy for the first time this year, I like the Vikings to remain undefeated.
Odds: Vikings –3.
Prediction: Vikings 21, Ravens 17.

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