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NFL Preview - Denver (6-0) at Baltimore (3-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Defense has been the Baltimore Ravens' calling card during a decade that has seen the team garner its fair share of success. The Denver Broncos are beginning to establish a reputation for superiority on that side of the ball as well.
The surprising Broncos will put an unblemished record on the line in this Sunday's visit to M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens will be poised to put an end to a frustrating three-game losing streak.
Denver's 6-0 start under the leadership of a new head coach (Josh McDaniels) and quarterback (Kyle Orton) has defied virtually all the preseason prognosticators, but what's been equally as shocking is the sudden turnaround of a defense that was one of the NFL's most porous units during last year's disappointing 8-8 campaign. The group, directed by one-time Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, is surrendering a league-low 11 points per game and ranks second overall in fewest yards allowed. The Broncos also top the NFL in third-down defense and have racked up an outstanding 21 sacks in their six wins.
The offense has done its part as well, thanks primarily to the remarkably efficient play of Orton under center. The offseason acquisition has almost made everyone in the Mile High City forget the name Jay Cutler by committing only a single turnover and completing a sharp 64 percent of his passes through his first six outings as a Bronco.
Orton was nearly flawless in Denver's most recent triumph, a 34-23 road ousting of fellow AFC West member San Diego on October 19 in which the ex- Chicago Bear hit on 20-of-29 throws for 229 yards and two touchdowns.
Like the Broncos, the Ravens are coming off a Week 7 bye, with the break giving the team some additional time to further stew about a tough loss at Minnesota in their last game. Baltimore put up three fourth-quarter touchdowns to overcome a 17-point deficit, but a field goal by the Vikings' Ryan Longwell with 1:56 left, followed by a 44-yard miss by the Ravens' Steve Hauschka, enabled the Brett Favre-led club to come through with a hard-fought 33-31 decision.
That defeat followed an equally painful 17-14 setback to AFC North-rival Cincinnati in Week 5, with the Bengals scoring a go-ahead touchdown in the game's final minute, and a 27-21 loss at New England on October 4 in which the Ravens outgained the potent Patriots by a 363-319 margin in total yards.
Baltimore, which opened the season with victories over Kansas City, San Diego and Cleveland, enters this weekend's play trailing both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh by 1 1/2 games for first place in the AFC North.
The Broncos sport a comfortable three-game advantage on second-place San Diego in the AFC West and are off to their best beginning since 1998, when the franchise ripped off 13 straight wins out of the gate en route to an eventual Super Bowl title.
The all-time regular season series between the Broncos and Ravens is knotted, 3-3, with Denver evening the series by virtue of a 13-3 home win when the clubs last met, in a Monday night tilt at Invesco Field at Mile High in 2006. The Ravens are 0-2 against the Broncos since last beating them, at home in 2003.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with the Ravens scoring a 21-3 home win in a 2000 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Including playoffs, the Broncos are 0-3 in road games against the Ravens all- time, and haven't won in Baltimore since beating the Colts at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 11, 1983.
McDaniels and Baltimore's John Harbaugh will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Many believed Denver got the short end of the deal when the team shipped a disgruntled Cutler to Chicago in exchange for Orton (1465 passing yards, 9 TD, 1 INT) and a host of premium draft picks back in April. It's hard to argue with the decision right now, however, with Orton having amassed a sizzling 70.8 percent completion rate over the last three games while being exceptionally judicious with the football. The 26-year-old is a proven winner as well, owning an impressive 27-12 career record as a starter. The Broncos have done an excellent job spreading the ball around in McDaniels' offense, with tight end Tony Scheffler (16 receptions, 2 TD) leading the way with six catches totaling 101 yards in the Week 6 win over San Diego and sophomore wide receiver Eddie Royal (18 receptions) snaring 10 passes in an overtime edging of New England the previous week. The most consistent and dangerous target for Orton still remains hulking wideout Brandon Marshall (29 receptions, 4 TD), who's had over 100 receptions in each of the last two seasons. Denver has also been able to mount a solid running game that's averaged 132.8 yards (7th overall) in the club's six victories. Veteran Correll Buckhalter (313 rushing yards, 1 TD, 12 receptions) is averaging an eye-opening 6.7 yards per attempt while splitting time with talented rookie Knowshon Moreno (381 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 2 total TD).
Baltimore's usually mighty defense has begun to show some chinks in the armor in recent weeks, with Favre putting up 278 yards and three touchdowns to fuel the Vikings' comeback two weeks ago and Cincinnati's Cedric Benson (120 yards) and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson (143 yards) both having big days against a Ravens squad that had not yielded an individual 100-yard rusher in 39 straight games prior to Benson's breakthrough. Baltimore still ranks seventh in the NFL in run defense (91.2 ypg) and has gotten another strong year out of 10-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ray Lewis (53 tackles, 1 sack), not to mention stalwart interior lineman Haloti Ngata (16 tackles). Star free safety Ed Reed (25 tackles, 2 INT) is still one of the game's premier ballhawks and defensive playmakers, but the cornerback combination of Fabian Washington (20 tackles) and former Bronco Domonique Foxworth (13 tackles, 1 INT, 6 PD) has been inconsistent for a defense that's given up an average of 241.5 passing yards per week (23rd overall). Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (21 tackles, 4 PD) and veteran end Trevor Pryce (11 tackles, 4 sacks) have been the leaders of a pass rush that has also been spotty at times.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
While the Ravens have slipped a bit from their high standards on defense, the team has emerged as a force on the offensive side thanks to the continued progress of a pair of second-year players, quarterback Joe Flacco (1674 passing yards, 11 TD, 5 INT) and running back Ray Rice (441 rushing yards, 33 receptions, 4 total TD). Flacco delivered his most productive game of his career in the Minnesota loss, with the rocket-armed youngster amassing a personal-best 385 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, and has surpassed the 300-yard mark three times already this season. Rice also established career highs with 10 catches and 117 receiving yards against the Vikings and leads all NFL players in yards from scrimmage (127.7 ypg) so far in 2009. The former Rutgers standout is averaging a robust six yards per rush attempt to boot. Thirteenth-year wide receiver Derrick Mason (26 receptions, 381 yards, 3 TD) is putting together another consistently good season at age 35, while tight end Todd Heap (24 receptions, 2 TD) and wideouts Mark Clayton (20 receptions, 2 TD) and Kelley Washington (20 receptions, 1 TD) have been steady contributors to Baltimore's eighth-rated passing attack (268.3 ypg). A good offensive line should be further bolstered with the expected return of regular left tackle Jared Gaither from a neck injury that caused him to miss the team's first two games. He'll play alongside 2009 first-round choice Michael Oher, who's been very good as a rookie.
Baltimore's young tackles will have their hands full trying to contain Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil (23 tackles, 2 forced fumbles), a devastating edge rusher and the NFL's current leader with 10 sacks this season. His stellar play is just one reason why the Broncos have excelled on defense, however. Cornerbacks Champ Bailey (30 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD) and Andre Goodman (12 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack) have provided tight coverage to aid the team's persistent pass rush, while inside linebackers D.J. Williams (46 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 PD) and Andra Davis (38 tackles, 1 sack) have anchored a front seven that's permitted a mere 79.7 rushing yards per game (3rd overall). Then there's the contributions of seasoned safety Brian Dawkins (38 tackles, 6 PD), a seven-time Pro Bowl honoree during his long tenure with Philadelphia who's lent both knowledge and fiery leadership to the new-look group since coming over via free agency in the offseason. Denver has produced a notable 12 takeaways through its first six games along with 21 sacks, and took San Diego's Philip Rivers to the turf five times in its recent win over the Bolts.
There have been few, if any, running backs that have performed better from a fantasy perspective than Rice in the early going. Although the second-year sensation draws a very difficult matchup this week, he's still a must-use as the clear focal point of the Baltimore offense. Flacco has established himself as a starting-caliber quarterback as well, though optimism should be tempered somewhat when taking on Denver's sturdy secondary. Mason seems to always get his catches and makes for a sound choice as a second wide receiver or flex play, but the other pass-catchers on the Ravens roster are too inconsistent to recommend with confidence. The same goes for Denver's deep corps of receivers with the exception of Marshall, who should give Baltimore's rather unphysical corners a nightmare of a time. Expect the Broncos to follow the example of some of the Ravens' past opponents and attack through the air, an approach that gives Orton some good value this week. Buckhalter has been the more productive of the two Denver backs and merits flex consideration, although Moreno should get enough touches to be a decent option. There are plenty of playmakers on both of these defenses, so each has plenty of upside.
There's no longer any reason to dispute the Broncos' legitimacy, and one can make a strong case that McDaniels' bunch has been a more complete team than the Ravens, who have shown some real vulnerability on the defensive end during their losing skid. Keep in mind, however, that Baltimore's three recent defeats have all come against quality opponents, and all could have gone in the Ravens' favor if a handful of plays had turned out differently. The thinking here is that the law of averages catches up with both teams, with Baltimore clawing its way to a very important victory on the strength of its veteran leadership and playing in front of the home crowd.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 20, Broncos 16
10/29 09:57:26 ET