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By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - To those in the Charm City it's called the "Mile High Miracle." To others in the Rocky Mountains, it's the "Denver Debacle."
No matter the title, however, the sequel starts filming Thursday when the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens return to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to kick off the 2013 NFL season by facing the AFC West champion Denver Broncos.
The Ravens stunned Denver on the same field back in January in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, taking the fourth-longest game in NFL history by a 38-35 score in double overtime.
Highlights from that dramatic contest included Broncos return specialist Trindon Holliday's two touchdown returns (90-yard punt return and 104-yard kickoff return) and a spectacular TD catch by Denver wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who is now a member of the Ravens.
Baltimore countered with a pair of interceptions by cornerback Corey Graham, one for a score, and two long Joe Flacco TD passes to Torrey Smith (59 and 32 yards). The most indelible image of the contest, though, was the now famous Flacco to Jacoby Jones desperation heave which turned into a 70- yard score and tied the game at the end of regulation.
The Ravens went on to win Super Bowl XLVII, posting a 14-6 overall record after a 10-6 regular season. Denver, meanwhile, finished an NFL-best 13-3 before coming up short against Baltimore.
Despite their status as defending champs, the Ravens enter 2013 with a changing of the guard following the loss of numerous key veterans that previously had made up the team's identity. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk and other key contributors have all moved on since Baltimore topped NFC kingpin San Francisco in New Orleans back in February.
Lewis, the recent face of the franchise and Super Bowl MVP when the Ravens won the franchise's first title to cap the 2000 campaign, hung up his cleats after the season and was joined in retirement by Birk, a former Pro Bowl center who had anchored the club's offensive line since '08.
Further cementing a new era, Lewis' partner in crime, Reed, signed as a free agent with Houston. He wasn't the only one to move on, with Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Cary Williams and Bernard Pollard all switching teams over the offseason. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was also traded to the 49ers.
The most obvious choice to replace Lewis as the leader of John Harbaugh's squad is Flacco, and not just because he signed a massive six-year, $120.6 million deal after taking home his own Super Bowl MVP trophy.
What makes Flacco the new face of the Purple and Black is the shift to a more powerful offense. The Ravens set a single-season franchise record by scoring 398 points a season ago and had the third-most plays in the NFL of 20-or-more yards at 72.
"I think Joe's maturity is showing just as his career has grown. He's shown that he's always going to be 'Cool Joe.' Now he's comfortable in his own skin that he can bark at the defensive guys," said defensive star Terrell Suggs of Flacco's leadership. "He came to a team that was primarily known for the defense, but now, we've got ourselves a big gun over there that can not only get it done, but he can win championships."
The 2012 season also marked the first time since 2002 that Baltimore did not finish the season as a top 10 defense, so with Flacco locked up general manager Ozzie Newsome turned his attention to retooling the defense, signing former Bronco Elvis Dumervil to team with Suggs at the outside linebacker spot.
He also added Chris Canty and Marcus Spears to the defensive line, inked veteran inside linebacker Daryl Smith and secured the services of safety Michael Huff.
Those bodies will be counted on to strengthen a defense that finished the 2012 season strong, but also lost its leading sacker (Kruger) and pass defenders in Reed and Williams.
But having a host of new players could also help the Ravens avoid a "Super Bowl hangover" that can plague teams.
"It's good to have been there. It's good to have experienced it. When you've been down a road before, it certainly doesn't hurt. You kind of know that you know the way," Harbaugh said of the advantages of having won a title.
"By the same token, we've got a number of guys that haven't been there. We've got a lot of guys that are hungry because they haven't been there before, so we'll just see how that mix plays out."
The Broncos, meanwhile, have had their own problems.
The presumptive favorites for the AFC crown have been hit with the embarrassing Dumervil fax machine faux pas, mortifying front office DUI arrests, defensive superstar Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy and some serious injury problems, including a season-ender for underrated veteran center Dan Koppen.
Despite all that drama, though, Denver does still look like a solid pick to come out of the AFC. After all, the West is shaping up as a dismal division with a team that finished 2-14 a season ago (Kansas City) pegged by most for second behind the Broncos.
If the Broncos are able to keep 37-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning healthy and upright for 16 games, it's almost a fait accompli they will be in the postseason and that alone gives them a leg up on just about any other team.
Remember, though, Denver was a trendy pick entering the playoffs last year and all but put the stake through the heart of the Ravens before safety Rahim Moore let Jones pop the top on the defense late in regulation.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 5-0 on Kickoff Weekend, the second-best current streak behind the Patriots' nine in a row to start the season. The Broncos, on the other hand, are 33-19-1 in openers, a gaudy .635 winning percentage.
Baltimore leads their all-time regular season series with the Broncos, 5-4 but its only previous win in Denver came in the playoffs last January.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
With Miller suspended and Dumervil now with the Ravens, Denver needs to establish some kind of pass rush to dissuade the vertical passing game Flacco loves. Former Charger Shaun Phillips, high-motor end Derek Wolfe and veteran Robert Ayers, who is hampered by a sore Achilles, are three players who really need to step it up in Miller's absence.
"Obviously, they have Phillips, who can do a tremendous job," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "He's done it over the years. I think he may have like 60-some odd career sacks or so. You look at Ayers, who is a guy who can do some damage, but then also Wolfe. Wolfe does a tremendous job. He gives you pressure inside as well. He's relentless."
On paper the Broncos have three solid corners in Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. Bailey, though, will miss the opener with a left foot injury and expecting the Denver corners to run with Smith and Jones down the field is a little too much to ask anyway. Meanwhile, Moore and fellow safety Duke Ihenacho aren't difference-makers on the back end.
"He's making great strides," Denver coach John Fox said when talking about Bailey. "Whether that leads (to playing) for this week against Baltimore, I can't predict that yet."
For the Baltimore offense it's all about finding an outlet receiver who can do the dirty work while Smith and Jones stretch things. Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta, who is likely out for the season with a hip injury, were Flacco's go-to-guys when he needed a big third-down conversion in 2012. Veterans Stokley and Dallas Clark are possible security blankets for Flacco this time around but while their resumes are long and accomplished both are regarded as descending players.
"I still see Torrey Smith, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, big offensive line and we know they brought in people that are very capable -- between young guys and veterans," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "We think they are a very good offense and we're getting prepared to go against them and hopefully get them slowed down enough to help our team."
Denver's superior receiving trio of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and free agent slot star Wes Welker figures to be too much for Ravens corners Lardarius Webb -- who is returning after an ACL injury last year-- and Graham, meaning superstar pass pusher Suggs along with Dumervil must force Manning to throw the ball before he feels comfortable. Manning is far too smart to take many sacks but if you force him to speed up his reads, he becomes mortal and his pedestrian arm strength can be exploited.
Helping the Ravens will be the fact that the Broncos' running game is nondescript at best with a committee approach featuring Ronnie Hillman, rookie Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno. Hillman and Moreno are placeholder types while Ball has a chance to seize the job, especially if the freshman can handle blitz responsibilities.
Both teams love playing an up-tempo style on offense. Manning is one of the best ever when reading things at the line of scrimmage and Flacco really elevated his game in 2012 after Caldwell took over for deposed offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and started trusting the University of Delaware product.
"(Flacco) has been making checks since he walked into the league and probably before that, so that's not any different," Caldwell said. "What's happened is that as growth has occurred, we've allowed him to have a little bit more freedom, just in terms of what he does at the line of scrimmage and how he goes about it."
Despite all the changes in Baltimore don't discount the Ravens as serious contenders again this season, not with Flacco under center and Rice in the backfield on one side of the ball, and Haloti Ngata and Suggs set to dominate again for the defense.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 63-30 overall, tying New England for the NFL's most total wins since his 2008 arrival, and have earned a playoff berth each season while making three trips to the AFC title game and earning their Super Bowl XLVII Championship.
"We are relentless in our pursuit to improve in everything we do," Harbaugh said. "It's always about getting better than we were the previous day, the previous practice, the previous game. The 2012 Ravens will walk together forever. They will always be champions. The 2013 Ravens will determine our legacy. It's a new team. We are prepared for the journey and ready to start in Denver. We can't wait to play this game on Thursday. It should be a great one."
The Broncos won the AFC West for the 12th time in their history in 2012 and consecutive division titles for the first since 1986-87. Chalk up a third straight in what shapes up to be a dismal division but that's not what this season is about. Denver must weather the storm without Miller early, keep Manning healthy and make sure its set up for a deep run come January. Anything less would be a big disappointment.
Revenge is a powerful tonic and the Broncos will be looking to right the wrongs of last January. This contest will likely mean more to Denver and the Ravens have undergone a few too many changes to hit the ground running.
"I think last year is last year," Fox said. "There's only one happy camper in this league whether you lose the Super Bowl, you lose the championship game, you lose the divisional round (or) you don't get in the playoffs. That's all disappointing in my approach. This is a fresh season."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 27, Ravens 20
09/05 09:24:53 ET
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