AFC West: Paul Kruger
This feels like Double Coverage déjà vu. It was only four weeks ago when we were talking about these same two teams. If you don't remember, or you're a Ravens fan trying to forget, the Broncos rolled to a 34-17 win in Baltimore.
Since that time, the Ravens regrouped with a 33-14 win over the Giants and delivered an emotionally charged 24-9 playoff win over the Colts in the wild-card round. Baltimore has now won at least one game in each of the past five postseasons.
The Broncos finished out the regular season with 11 straight wins to capture the top seed in the AFC. In the previous 42 seasons, there have been eight teams to enter the playoffs with an active win streak of at least 10 games, and half of them made the Super Bowl.
AFC West blogger Bill Williamson and AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley discuss whether Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game will be a repeat of the regular-season rout.
Williamson: There’s no denying this: The Denver Broncos are confident going into this game. They should be. They are 13-3. They have won a league-high 11 straight games. They pounded the Ravens in Baltimore four weeks ago in their best overall game of the season. But be sure of this: Denver respects Baltimore. It is not overlooking this game because of a potential Manning-Tom Brady showdown in the AFC title game. The key to Denver’s winning streak has been its focus on the upcoming game and its ability not to get ahead of itself. As Jamison said, the Ravens are healthier this week than they were in December, and the Broncos know it. They have spoken of that fact all week. This is a good approach for Denver. The Broncos feel good about themselves, but they are focused on the Ravens. Let’s face it, the Broncos should win this game, but an upset is not out of the question. Jamison, what do you think are some keys to this matchup?
Hensley: The biggest matchup is one the Ravens lost badly the first time. It's the Ravens' offensive line against the Broncos' pass rush. Joe Flacco was sacked three times, and he's not the same quarterback when he gets hit early. Pressure on Flacco often results in turnovers. It's kind of a running theme, but the Ravens hope it will be different this time because their line looks different. For the wild-card victory Sunday, the Ravens put Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, moved Michael Oher to right tackle and shifted Kelechi Osemele to left guard. McKinnie allowed one quarterback pressure against the Colts, and the Ravens gave up one sack. As you know, Bill, it's an entirely different challenge with Von Miller and the Broncos. What's the key matchup from the Broncos' standpoint?
Williamson: I think it starts here. I don’t know if the Ravens are going to have an answer for that. Sure, they did some line shuffling last week. But that is a sign of desperation. Denver’s pass rush is top-notch. It was all over Flacco last month. It set the tone for the game. Expect Denver to bring the heat early. The Broncos are well coached, but there isn’t a lot of mystery. They focus on what they do well, so don’t expect any funny business. Denver knows it got to Flacco easily four weeks ago and it will try to do the same thing. Miller is one of the best pass-rushers alive. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Miller had 11.5 of his 18.5 sacks on third downs in 2012. It was the highest total in the NFL in 20 years. But Denver’s pass rush is much more than the menacing Miller. Elvis Dumervil is a standout, and Denver gets great push from the defensive front. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Denver defense has sacked or put the quarterback under duress on 28 percent of opponent dropbacks this season. It was the highest rate in the NFL. Against Baltimore, Denver put Flacco under duress 33 percent of the time. That is extremely taxing for an offensive line and quarterback. It is something Baltimore will have to account for.
Williamson: The guy has been so spectacular all season, I don’t see a lot of pressure. I mean, this is a 36-year-old man who missed all of the 2011 season because he had four neck surgeries. His recovery was the story of the NFL offseason. He responded with one of his best NFL seasons in a new setting and he is a top MVP candidate. I think the pressure is off. Now, it's true that he has not been great in the postseason. He is 9-10 in his career. If Denver loses Saturday, it will certainly be a major storyline. But I don’t think there is a lot of worry in Denver about Manning’s playoff history. Maybe because everyone is so confident in how he fits with this team and the supporting cast around him. This is arguably the best team he’s played on.
Hensley: Well, Bill, I'm not breaking new ground by saying this isn't the best defense Lewis has played on. No one will be making any comparisons to the 2000 record-setting defense, but the 2012 defense is better than what people think. The Ravens were the second-best red zone defense in the NFL this year and stopped the Colts on all three trips inside the 20-yard line last Sunday. Over the final six games, Baltimore allowed the NFL's fourth-fewest yards per game. But the best defense against Manning might be the weather. Bill, do I need to bring my snow shovel?
Williamson: You might want to pack an ice scraper, but nothing too serious. The forecast calls for a chance of snow. I think the biggest issue will be the cold. That could help the defense. Interesting that you mention the Ravens’ defensive success in the red zone. There have been times when Denver’s offense has stalled in the red zone. For Baltimore to win this game, it needs to hold Denver to three points more often than not and create big plays on defense. I don’t think it is out of the question that Baltimore wins this game, but the truth is that Denver is balanced and rolling. The Broncos will need to make an unusual amount of mistakes and the Ravens will have to cash in every time. I’m not sure if that will happen. I think this game will be closer than the last meeting, but I still give Denver the edge.
Oakland will visit with and is expected to sign Matt Leinart to be Carson Palmer’s backup quarterback, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
I am not surprised at all that Leinart and not Terrelle Pryor will be the backup. Pryor is still very much a developmental quarterback. Plus, he wasn’t taken by this regime. They must watch and work with Pryor before putting him one play from becoming a starter.
In Leinart, Oakland has an experienced player who you can count on in a pinch. Most importantly, he is a player who is comfortable in Oakland’s system.
In other AFC West notes:
- Oakland third-round pick Tony Bergstrom is married to the sister of Baltimore linebacker Paul Kruger.
- Ronnie Hillman played for Snoop Dogg’s traveling youth team in Southern California as a youngster.
- San Diego second-round pick, defensive lineman Kendall Reyes, was a receiver in high school. He is now 295 pounds.
- Kansas City third round pick, tackle Donald Stephenson, is from Kansas City. His reaction to getting chosen by the Chiefs? “I’m speechless,” the Oklahoma product said. “I love the Chiefs. I’ve always loved them. To have a chance to play in my hometown is huge.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
The Denver Broncos' mock draft:
Round 1, pick 12
Tyson Jackson, LSU, DE
Round 1, pick 18
Chris "Beanie" Wells, Ohio State, RB
Round 2, pick 48
Ron Brace, Boston College, DT
Round 3, pick 79
Paul Kruger, Utah, DE
Round 3, pick 84
Patrick Chung, Oregon, S
Round 4, pick 114
Johnny Knox, Abilene Christian, WR
Round 5, pick 149
Coye Francies, San Jose State, CB
Round 6, pick 185
Brian Hoyer, Michigan State, QB
Round 7, pick 225
Worrell Williams, Cal, LB
Round 7, pick 235
Nick Hennessey, Colgate, G
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Here is a name for AFC West fans to watch as the April 25-26 draft approaches: Paul Kruger.
The junior defensive end from Utah is being closely examined by the Broncos and the Chiefs. Denver has already worked out Kruger and the Chiefs are set to work him out next week. Oakland has also expressed an interest.
Kruger is considered a potential pass-rush star. All three of those teams need pass-rushing help, especially Kansas City and Denver. Kruger, who had 7.5 sacks for the undefeated Utes in 2008, has been compared to Jared Allen and Patrick Kerney.
At 6-foot-4, 263 pounds, Kruger is a high-motor player who is rising up draft boards and who will likely be taken in the second or third round.
The Broncos are looking for pass-rushers who can play defensive end or linebacker in a 3-4 defense. The Chiefs are also considering moving to a 3-4.
The Chiefs set an NFL record last season for the fewest sacks in a season with 10. They will likely look at several pass rushers. If Kruger, 25, does end up with the Chiefs, it will be his second stint in Kansas City.
He spent his two-year Mormon mission, which delayed his college career, in Kansas City.