Baltimore Ravens (0-0) at Denver Broncos (0-0)
While much has been made of how much the Ravens lost this off-season, I actually think this is a better team this season than they were last season. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean I expect them to repeat as Super Bowl champions. They weren’t the best team in the league last year. They were the best team in the league last January and February, but in the regular season they were a 10-6 team that barely won the yardage battle on the season. I expect them to be better than that this season.
The primary reason for that is I think that Joe Flacco will maintain some of his gains from last year’s post-season run. Throughout his 5 year career, he’s been a very inconsistent week to week quarterback, but an incredibly consistent year to year quarterback, proving himself to be a slightly above average quarterback and nothing more. His completion percentages have always fallen between 57.6% and 63.1%. His YPAs have always fallen between 6.7 and 7.4. His touchdowns have always fallen between 20 and 25 (with the exception of his rookie year) and his interceptions have always fallen between 10 and 12. Of course, that all changed in the post-season, as he completed 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.1 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions.
He won’t be that good this season, mostly because that level of play is impossible to maintain over a season, but there are three reasons why I think he carries over his strong play into this season and has the best regular season of his career. The first is I think he’s truly turned somewhat of a corner as a player. He’ll never be a top level quarterback most likely, but I think he is an improved quarterback over where he was a year ago.
The second reason is Bryant McKinnie. The veteran left tackle barely played in the regular season because of weight issues, but he got his weight right for the playoffs and made his first start of the season in the first round of the playoffs. This allowed Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele to shift to their more natural positions of right tackle and left guard respectively. This led to Joe Flacco being sacked on just 4.5% of his drop backs in the post-season and pressured on just 27.6%. For comparison, he was sacked on 6.1% of his drop backs and pressured 32.4% of his drop backs in the regular season.
The third reason is offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. Ordinarily, firing your offensive coordinator after week 14, as the Ravens did in 2012 after an overtime home loss to the Redskins, is the equivalent of waving a white flag. However, for the Ravens it was a move that had needed to be done for years as Cam Cameron was consistently overmatched as a play caller on a weekly basis. That was obvious. What was not obvious was how much of an upgrade Jim Caldwell, a first time signal caller, would be.
The biggest thing Caldwell did was letting Flacco unleash and throw downfield most often, rather than forcing him to run a more conservative offense. It had looked for years like Flacco was always holding something back and he might actually be more accurate 15 yards downfield than 5-10 yards downfield. In 6 full games with Caldwell as his offensive coordinator, Flacco threw downfield 20+ yards or more 41 times, an average of 6.8 times per game. In 13 games with Cam Cameron, he threw downfield 20+ yards or more 80 times, an average of 6.2 times per game. Of those 41 throws, he completed 20 for 714 yards and 6 touchdowns, with no interceptions. A full season of Flacco and Caldwell will be very beneficial to Flacco.
The only concern is he’s lost receivers Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. Their receiving corps is a weakness and their Achilles heel, but I trust Flacco to succeed in spite of that. New #1 receiver Torrey Smith is a better fit as a #1 receiver in a downfield throw based offense and going into his 3rd year in the league, he could be ready to bust out.
On top of that, I actually really like what the Ravens did this off-season. This might sound ridiculous considering all they lost early in free agency. Ray Lewis retired, as did long time starting center Matt Birk. Ed Reed signed with the Texans and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, who came on big time in their playoff run, signed with the Dolphins and Ravens respectively. For cap reasons, Anquan Boldin was traded to the 49ers and Bernard Pollard was cut. Also gone are defensive starters, Cary Williams and Ma’ake Kemoeatu, making it a total of 9 starters gone from their Super Bowl winning team.
However, the Ravens did not panic and let the off-season come to them, as could have been expected from GM Ozzie Newsome, one of the best in the business. Super Bowls are never won on the first day of free agency. That’s when mediocre teams like the Dolphins panic and overspend, but the good teams like the Ravens, Patriots, Steelers, 49ers, Giants, Packers, Saints, and Falcons never make big moves on that day and instead focus on smart signings, strong drafting, and careful cap management. You can say that it’s because those teams don’t need as much because they are already good, but none of them were built on big free agent signings.
The Ravens drafted very well, adding two first round prospects in the first 2 rounds of the draft in Matt Elam and Arthur Jones, who will replace Ed Reed and Ray Lewis respectively (technically Elam will play strong safety and replace Bernard Pollard, but safeties are so interchangeable these days that I think the statement still counts as true given than Elam is the future of the Ravens’ safety position). They may split time with veterans Josh Bynes and James Ihedigbo early in the season, but they will be the starters before long.
In addition to their strong draft, they made a number of smart free agency signings. Michael Huff was signed to a cheap 3 year deal to play safety next to Matt Elam. He was a cap casualty by the Raiders, but he is still a solid starter and a great value. Daryl Smith was signed to a one year deal from Jacksonville. He’s going into his age 31 season and missed most of last year with injury, but was one of the best linebackers in the league in 2011. He’ll play inside with Arthur Brown. Chris Canty was signed after being cut by the Giants to provide defensive line depth and replace Kemoeatu.
Even when the Ravens made a big money signing it was a good value. After the Broncos made him a cap casualty, the Ravens signed Elvis Dumervil to a 5 year, 26 million dollar deal (with an extra 9 million available through incentives). It was a great value considering Paul Kruger got 40.5 million over 5 years from the Browns, despite the fact that he was only a one year starter. Dumervil, meanwhile, has 42 sacks in his last 3 healthy seasons, including playoffs, and is only 2 years older, going into just his age 29 season. He’s very one dimensional, but he’s better in a 3-4, having his career best year in 2009 under Mike Nolan in Denver, and should play even better in Baltimore’s scheme (similar to a Mike Nolan type defense) than he did in the last 2 seasons in Denver.
If either of these two teams is inferior to the last time they met, it’s Denver. Sure, the additions of Wes Welker and Louis Vasquez give them a stronger offensive supporting cast, but I don’t necessarily think they’ll score more points as a result. The Broncos were 2nd in the NFL in points scored last year, averaging 30.1 points per game, largely due to Peyton Manning having the 2nd best statistical season of his career.
Sure, with an improved supporting cast, Manning could have an even better season, but I think it’s more likely that general regression, along with slightly diminished skills as a 37 year old who has recently had 4 neck surgeries, lead to a much more average season for Manning, at least by his standards. An average Manning season is still pretty good, but I don’t think they’ll score 30 points per game again, something Manning accomplished just once in Indianapolis (2004). They still lack balance on offense as they’ll be going with a trio of 2nd round rookie Montee Ball, 2012 3rd round pick and change of pace back Ronnie Hillman, and the mediocre Knowshon Moreno.
While I don’t think they’ll be as good offensively, defensively I know they won’t be as good, especially early on. First, they lost Elvis Dumervil, an above average defensive end who thrived as a pass rusher, this off-season and didn’t replace him. To add insult to injury on that one, Dumervil now is on the Ravens. On top of that, they’ll be without Von Miller and possibly Champ Bailey and Derek Wolfe in this game.
Miller’s absence will be the biggest since he’s one of the best all-around players in the game, but losing a #1 cornerback in Champ Bailey isn’t helpful either. Derek Wolfe’s potential absence isn’t as big of a deal, except for that it further thins out their defensive end depth. We could see heavy doses of a washed up Shaun Phillips, former 1st round pick bust Robert Ayers, and inexperienced 2nd year player Malik Jackson at defensive end for the Broncos this week. The Ravens should be able to move the ball easily.
I don’t know that the Ravens will necessarily win this game, but I’m pretty confident getting 7 ½ points with them. I thought this line was ridiculous when it opened at 8 ½ and that it was an overreaction to the Ravens’ supposedly poor offense, but it’s even more ridiculous that it only moved 1 point (without crossing any key numbers) for all of the Broncos injuries and Miller’s suspension. Defending Super Bowl Champions usually do well week 1, as the Giants losing last year snapped a 10 game winning streak for Defending Super Bowl Champions week 1, since they moved this to a standalone game (on either Monday, Thursday, or Wednesday) in 2002.
The Ravens are in a different situation, on the road here, because of a dispute with the Orioles, with whom they share multiple parking lots. However, I think that might make the Ravens feel even more disrespected, which they already must be, considering how little respect the public is giving them early. I really like getting more than a touchdown with them here in this situation. And for what’s it’s worth, I think it’s ridiculous this game had to be moved for baseball. Baseball has 162 games per season. Football has 16. One game is much more important and interesting in football, not to mention the fact that football is a more popular sport. And on top of that, the Ravens are defending Super Bowl champs. What have the Orioles won? Oh, they might have a chance at winning the 2nd AL Wild Card? Pretty impressive.
Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.
Baltimore Ravens 27 Denver Broncos 24 Upset Pick
Pick against spread: Baltimore +7.5