Peyton Manning’s last encounter with the Baltimore Ravens resulted in one of the most prolific performance of his illustrious career.
An encore would be surprising.
The Broncos begin year No. 4 of the Manning era with a new coach and offense, both very familiar to the Ravens, in Sunday’s showdown between two of the AFC’s established powers.
Having revived his own career with a successful one-year stint as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak now tries to bring a championship to a Broncos franchise that’s come up short despite posting 38 regular-season wins in Manning’s three seasons. The hire also may signal an additional transition for Denver (12-4) as Manning nears his 40th birthday and comes off an inevitable statistical decline from his record-setting 2013 numbers.
A switch to a more run-based philosophy, a trademark of Kubiak’s tenure as Houston coach from 2006-13, was actually in the works prior to the former Broncos quarterback and assistant’s return. With Manning (4,727 yards, 39 TDs, 15 INTs) slowed by a torn quad over the final month, Denver averaged 147.7 rushing yards in the six games preceding its 24-13 home loss to Indianapolis in the divisional round.
With Manning adjusting to the new scheme – the Broncos didn’t score a touchdown in any of his nine drives during the preseason – Denver figures to rely more on 2014 breakout back C.J. Anderson (849 rushing yards, 8 TDs) and a defense that generated 20 preseason sacks under new coordinator and former Broncos coach Wade Phillips.
”It’s going to be a work in progress through the year, too,” vice president of football operations John Elway said. ”We’re not going to be kicking on all cylinders. We’d like to, but it’s still going to be a work in progress with this offense and people are going to continue to get more and more comfortable with it, even after we start the regular season."
Baltimore (10-6) isn’t completely buying the notion of Manning morphing into a game manager, though, and there’s precedence why. When the teams met at Sports Authority Field in Week 1 of the 2013 season, Manning threw for a career-high seven touchdowns and 462 yards – his third-most – to lead Denver to a 49-27 rout.
Manning also has his top two targets back in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, both of whom eclipsed 100 catches and 1,400 yards last season. Sanders is back practicing fully after being slowed by a hamstring injury for part of the preseason.
"They’ve got two Pro Bowl receivers, maybe the one and two, one and three production receivers in the league last year," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Of course, that has to do with the quarterback, but these are two talented guys and obviously (tight end) Owen (Daniels) is a go-to guy in critical situations, so they’ve got lots of talent."
It’s unlikely Baltimore will be intimidated, though. The Ravens have a league-best seven playoff victories on the road in Harbaugh’s seven seasons, including a memorable 38-35 double-overtime triumph in Denver during the 2012 divisional round that propelled them to the Super Bowl title that’s eluded the Broncos in recent years.
Baltimore does have some question marks on an offense that set club records for points (409) and total yards (5,838) under Kubiak’s direction last year. Daniels followed Kubiak to Denver and wide receiver Torrey Smith bolted for San Francisco in free agency. Smith’s intended replacement, Breshad Perriman, missed all of the preseason with a sprained right knee that will keep the 2015 first-round pick out of the opener as well.
Joe Flacco (3,986 yards, 27 TDs, 12 INTs) and Justin Forsett (1,266 rushing yards, 8 TDs) are back and coming off career years, while 15-year veteran Steve Smith (79 catches, 1,065 yards, 6 TDs) is back for one more season after enjoying a career renaissance in 2014.
The Ravens finished 23rd in pass defense and recorded just 11 interceptions last season, but top cornerback Jimmy Smith is healthy after missing eight games and the secondary added experienced reinforcements in safety Kendrick Lewis and cornerback Kyle Arrington.
"I think we’re going to be a pretty darn good football team," Harbaugh told the Ravens’ official website. "We’re excited about where we’re at, and I can’t wait to see what we do when the games are for real."