RAVENS PASSING GAME: It will be interesting to see new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell's influence on the play-calling and game plan. The expectation is that the Ravens will loosen the reins on quarterback Joe Flacco, who feels he's at his best in the no-huddle offense. Flacco threw three first-half touchdowns in last Sunday's loss to the Washington Redskins, but he turned the ball over twice. Wide receiver Torrey Smith has three catches or fewer in four of his past five games.
BRONCOS PASSING GAME: Peyton Manning may not be the same quarterback who beat the Ravens eight consecutive times as an Indianapolis Colt from 2002 to 2009, but he remains one of the game's elite signal callers. After sitting out last season with a neck injury, Manning ranks in the top 10 in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and quarterback rating. Demaryius Thomas is his top target but, Manning spreads the ball around to Eric Decker, Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley as well.
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RAVENS RUNNING GAME: This group is coming off its most productive game of the season, as the Ravens gouged the Redskins for 186 rushing yards. Ray Rice had his first 100-yard game since Week 5, and Bernard Pierce had a career-high 53 yards. Rice figures to get a heavy workload with the Ravens wanting to keep Peyton Manning off the field, but the team's best run blocker, right guard Marshal Yanda, has a sprained right ankle, and both Rice and fullback Vonta Leach are banged up.
BRONCOS RUNNING GAME: The Broncos have averaged an NFL-best 134.7 rushing yards per game since 1995, but this has become Manning's team. This year's Broncos are averaging just 106.1 yards on the ground with seven rushing touchdowns. With former Raven Willis McGahee on injured reserved with a leg injury, Knowshon Moreno, a 2009 first-round pick who has battled injuries, is back in a starting role, and he rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown last week.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: Another week, another 100-yard rusher against the Ravens, as Washington rookie Alfred Morris powered his way for 122 yards last Sunday. The Ravens' run defense is ranked 25th in the NFL, allowing 129.3 yards per game, and it appears more vulnerable than ever. Their three top inside linebackers and three of their top five tacklers — Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Ray Lewis — all could miss the game, leaving the middle of the field to Josh Bynes, Albert McClellan and Brendon Ayanbadejo.
BRONCOS RUSH DEFENSE: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's group has been extremely tough to run against, allowing just 93.7 rushing yards per game and only five rushing touchdowns. It marks the fifth straight week the Ravens will play a top 10 rushing defense. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard leads the Broncos in tackles to go along with four sacks and three interceptions. Former Ravens nose tackle Justin Bannan has started 12 of 13 games and is second among Denver defensive linemen with 38 tackles.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: This is also a patchwork group, but the potential return of second-year cornerback Jimmy Smith should help. Forced to go deep on their defensive back depth chart, the Ravens have been exploited late in games the past two weeks, with both Chris Johnson and Chykie Brown getting targeted. The Ravens gave up nine passing plays of 15 yards or more last week. Paul Kruger and Arthur Jones have helped boost the pass rush with eight sacks over the past three games.
BRONCOS PASS DEFENSE: This unit is loaded with star power, led by veteran Champ Bailey, who remains one of the league's elite corners, and relentless pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. Miller is third in the NFL with 16 sacks and is second with 24 tackles for loss. Dumervil has six sacks and six forced fumbles. The Broncos have allowed 215.7 passing yards per game, the seventh lowest total in the NFL, and they are second in the league with 39 sacks. They have given up 22 passing touchdowns.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: Richard Crawford's 64-yard punt return in overtime, which set up Kai Forbath's game-winning field goal last Sunday, was one of the few blemishes all season for the Ravens' special teams. It marred an otherwise solid day for punter Sam Koch who has averaged more than 50 yards per punt in back-to-back games. Kicker Justin Tucker has converted on 24-of-26 field-goal attempts and is fourth in the NFL in touchbacks. Jacoby Jones is coming off another solid game, averaging 29 yards per kickoff return.
BRONCOS SPECIAL TEAMS: Ravens return specialist Jacoby Jones could be rendered a non-factor by the Broncos' kicking tandem. Kicker Matt Prater leads the NFL with 55 touchbacks, and punter Britton Colquitt ranks second with a 42.8 net punting average, having allowed just 4.9 yards per return. Prater has missed five of 26 field-goal attempts this season, but he's a proven clutch kicker. Trindon Holliday is the third player in Broncos history to have kick and punt return touchdowns in the same season.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: Ravens coach John Harbaugh has guided his team through adversity before, and he'll be tested again Sunday. The Ravens are dealing with a boatload of injuries, they've lost two straight games for the first time since October 2009 and they don't even have their NFL-best home winning streak to lean on, as that was ended two weeks ago by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens hope that they get a spark from the dismissal of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron earlier in the week.
BRONCOS INTANGIBLES: Ranked in the top five in both offense and defense, the Broncos are the hottest team in the NFL. They have eight straight wins and have outscored the opposition by more than 12 points on average during that streak. Their only three losses are to the NFC's current top seed, the Atlanta Falcons, and the AFC's top two seeds, the Houston Texans and New England Patriots. The Broncos are winless in four all-time trips to Baltimore and they haven't defeated the Ravens since 2006.
PREDICTION: As hard as it is to fathom that the once 9-2 Ravens could lose three straight games and drop two in a row at home after not losing at M&T Bank Stadium for nearly two years, it's even harder to imagine how a depleted defense is going to be able to contain Manning and the surging Broncos. To win, the Ravens will need to play a near flawless game offensively, and they haven't done that in some time. I expect a motivated Ravens team and a sharper Flacco, but I don't think that will be enough.