Baltimore Ravens: Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning was the runaway winner as the most respected player in the NFL, according to an ESPN survey of 320 players around the league.

It's easy to see why. His production, preparation and ability to overcome a serious neck injury are all reasons why players revere Manning so much. Manning received 26.8 percent of the votes, and Tom Brady finished a distant second with 7.5 percent. I thought it was odd that the most respected defensive player -- Washington's London Fletcher -- received only 3.4 percent of the votes.

So, which Ravens player is the most respected? No one from Baltimore made the list, but I can speculate on who is the most respected by his teammates.

On offense, I would bet most would go with guard Marshal Yanda. He is a Pro Bowl lineman who is the toughest player on the team. As far as defense goes, I believe many would say linebacker Daryl Smith (the player who was known as "Buck") is the most respected. Even though last season was his first in Baltimore, his "say little, work hard" mentality resonated with a lot of teammates.

Locker Room Buzz: Baltimore Ravens

September, 6, 2013
DENVER -- Observed in the locker room after the Baltimore Ravens' 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Sobering loss: The atmosphere in the Ravens' locker room was more disappointment than anger. "Any time you lose like this in front of the whole world, it's definitely humbling," safety Michael Huff said.

Not much reflection: Tight end Dallas Clark had a rough debut for the Ravens, dropping multiple passes, including one near the goal line. He didn't give much of an explanation other than to say: "It's disappointing, and you got to get the next one." He described the defeat as a "team loss."

Oher limping: Right tackle Michael Oher has never missed a game, so you know it's serious when he didn't return after injuring his ankle in the second quarter. When approached in the locker room, Oher declined comment, saying, "I've got to get treatment." As he walked across the locker room, Oher was noticeably limping.

Flacco in awe: Joe Flacco was certainly impressed with Peyton Manning's seven-touchdown performance, which tied an NFL record. "It's a sweet way to start a season and get ahead," he said. "He's almost halfway to 20 already. There's not too much to say. It's kind of self-explanatory."

Manning makes huge fantasy splash, too

September, 6, 2013
A look at the Denver Broncos' 49-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Thursday's NFL season opener from a fantasy perspective.
  • Not only did Peyton Manning tie an NFL record with seven touchdown passes, but his 46 fantasy points were the third-most by a quarterback since the merger, according to ESPN Fantasy’s Tristan H. Cockcroft … and 10 more than he had ever scored in a game himself. It was his first game with at least 30 fantasy points since 2004. Not a bad way to start the season for the No. 3 quarterback in the preseason ESPN Fantasy rankings.
  • If you’re seeking more historical perspective, here is the link to a story Cockcroft updated last year following Doug Martin’s monster game against the Raiders.
  • The Broncos were the only team with three wide receivers ranked in ESPN Fantasy’s top 20 at the position (Demaryius Thomas at No. 6, Wes Welker at No. 12, Eric Decker at No. 20), so it’s no surprise that two of them (Thomas and Welker) put up solid numbers.
  • Thomas' 28 fantasy points were a career high, and Welker had 16 of his own in his Broncos debut. But it was third-year tight end Julius Thomas who was the biggest surprise.
  • Julius Thomas, who had just one career catch in his first two seasons, had two first-half touchdowns on his way to 23 fantasy points. The former Portland State basketball forward was the 20th-ranked tight end by ESPN fantasy in the preseason. He is owned in just 26.1 percent of ESPN leagues, and was started in just 9.3 percent of ESPN leagues.
  • Not many positives for the Ravens, but undrafted free agent Marlon Brown took advantage of an injury to Jacoby Jones in the first half and finished with 12 fantasy points. Fantasy first-rounder Ray Rice found the end zone, but did not have a great night, totaling 12 fantasy points on his 20 touches (12 rushes, 8 receptions).
  • Danny Trevathan's early celebration not only cost the Broncos (and fantasy owners of their defense/special-teams unit) six points immediately, but likely more than that since the Ravens immediately went downfield for a touchdown of their own.
  • Meanwhile, the Ravens defense scored minus-6 points. Last season, the unit finished with a negative total just once, in a 43-13 blowout loss in Houston.

It was 236 days ago when Joe Flacco threw that fateful, 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a double-overtime playoff win at the Denver Broncos. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and the Broncos were left to think of what might have been. Flacco and the Ravens return to Denver's Sports Authority Stadium on Thursday night to kick off the 2013 season in a rematch of two of the top teams in the AFC.

The stakes are different, and so are the teams. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin from the Ravens. Baltimore is expected to have 10 different starters from the team that hoisted up the Lombardi trophy, and that doesn't include former Broncos defensive standout Elvis Dumervil, who is expected to play in passing situations.

The Broncos won't have Dumervil or Von Miller, who has been suspended for six games, rushing after Flacco this time. But Peyton Manning is back, along with the addition of Wes Welker to an already dangerous wide receiver group.

Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss whether the opener will be a repeat of that memorable AFC divisional playoff game.

Hensley: Much has been made of the 50-foot Flacco banner hanging at the Broncos' stadium. Flacco has embraced the hate, saying it's not a bad thing for opposing fans to dislike you. The Ravens' focus, as it has been all offseason, has been to move forward. It's the start of a different era in many ways for the Ravens in their first game without Lewis and Reed. But it's easier to move forward when you're the ones sitting on top of the football world. How much will the "revenge factor" play into this game for the Broncos?

Legwold: Broncos coach John Fox, much like John Harbaugh with his "What's Important Now" mantra to leave the championship season behind, has tried to leave the past in the past. But questions about the kneel-down in the waning seconds despite Manning at quarterback and two timeouts in hand, as well as a third-and-7 running play late in the game, have trailed him all through the offseason. A lot of the Broncos players are willing to say memories of the playoff loss pushed them through the tedium of May and June. But over the past two weeks, they've stuck to the script -- that it's a new year, a new team -- but deep down they all know they let a potential Super Bowl trip, home-field advantage and a seven-point lead with less than a minute to play get away. And Dumervil's departure does add a little spice as well. How has Dumervil fit in and what kind of year do you think he'll have?

Hensley: Terrell Suggs has talked about Dumervil having the right mentality to play for the Ravens, and Harbaugh commented how Dumervil is already taking a leadership role. He really is a perfect fit for the Ravens on the field, too, where they have never had an elite pass-rusher to pair with Suggs. Over the past six seasons, Suggs has had only one teammate record more than seven sacks in a season. And being a pass-rusher is Dumervil's primary role. The Ravens will use Courtney Upshaw on early downs to set the edge against the run, which should keep Dumervil's legs fresh in pass-rushing situations. The Ravens have a familiarity with Dumervil because inside linebackers coach Don Martindale was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2010 and was Dumervil's position coach in 2009, when the linebacker-end led the NFL with 17 sacks. Baltimore is catching a break Thursday night with Dumervil now wearing purple and Miller serving his suspension. How are the Broncos going to generate a pass rush on Flacco?

[+] EnlargeElvis Dumervil
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was one of the Ravens' high-profile offseason acquisitions, and has become a leader on the field and off for Baltimore.
Legwold: That is the $380,687.50 question, which is how much of Miller's base salary he'll surrender during the six-game suspension. But without Miller (18.5 sacks in '12) and Dumervil (11.0 last season), the Broncos will mix and match on a variety of down-and-distances. Derek Wolfe is a key player, because of his ability to play inside and outside along the defensive line and still create matchup problems. Jack Del Rio believes Wolfe is ready to take an enormous step in his development, and among the defensive linemen only Dumervil played more snaps up front than Wolfe did as a rookie last year. The Broncos will ask Shaun Phillips, who they think has plenty left to give after 9.5 sacks for the struggling Chargers last season, to be a spot rusher. And Robert Ayers, who was a first-round pick in 2009, has always said he could put up the sack numbers if given the chance. He's played through four different coordinators -- Del Rio is his first to be on the job for two consecutive seasons -- but has just 6.5 career sacks. Now is his time. On Flacco, how has he dealt with all that comes with a Lombardi trophy and a nine-digit contract?

Hensley: The money and increased notoriety haven't really affected Flacco. If anything, he's become more vocal. There was a playful trash-talking exchange during training camp between Flacco and Suggs, who told his quarterback that the defense's "swag is on a thousand million." Flacco responded: "Then what's my swag at? I get paid more than you. A lot more!" What has really changed is the wide receiver group around Flacco. This unfamiliarity led to four interceptions in six quarters of work this preseason. His top two receivers from a year ago won't be there Thursday. Boldin was traded to San Francisco, and tight end Dennis Pitta is out indefinitely with a dislocated hip. They accounted for 36 receptions in the postseason, which was nearly half of Flacco's completions. That being said, it was Torrey Smith and Jones who did the most damage in the playoff game in Denver. The Ravens are hoping wide receiver Brandon Stokley can move the chains on third downs and tight end Ed Dickson (hamstring) can contribute in the season opener. There has to be more confidence in the Broncos' passing attack with Manning and his bunch of talented receivers.

Legwold: There is plenty of confidence in what the potential can be with Welker in the mix. The Broncos loved Stokley as a slot receiver, but Welker is younger and offers a bigger upside in terms of production. Welker will also have the best receivers to his outside shoulders in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the best combo he's had since the Patriots decided they didn't want Randy Moss around any longer. The 229-pound Thomas and the 214-pound Decker make the Broncos a tough matchup for any secondary. In the preseason, teams simply backed off into coverage and took their chances they could allow the catch and make the tackle before too much damage was done. The pace, especially at altitude, is a little something new as well. The Broncos ran 49 plays, excluding penalties, in the first half alone against the Rams in the preseason. They won't always go that fast, but if they get the look they want from a defense, they'll put the pedal to the floor and not allow a substitution. The key issue will be protection: Left tackle Ryan Clady missed plenty of the preseason after offseason surgery, and Denver has surrendered pressure in the middle of the field at times. The three-wide look is what the Broncos want their base formation to be on offense, but they can't do it if they can't protect Manning. It has to be a strange thing for a Baltimore defense that has been the franchise's signature for so long to have so many changes.

Hensley: There were a lot of changes to the Ravens' defense, but there were necessary changes. The Ravens weren't a top-10 defense for the first time since 2002. This defense had slumped to No. 17 in the NFL. It's never easy to part ways with the likes of Lewis and Reed. But the Ravens aren't replacing two Hall of Fame players in their prime. Baltimore had to replace two aging players who weren't the same playmakers from a few years ago. The additions of Dumervil, defensive lineman Chris Canty, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff have made this a stronger and more athletic defense. The Ravens' defense is going to be significantly better in two areas: stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The biggest concern, especially when you're starting two new safeties, is the communication in the secondary. One mistake there and Manning will burn you for a touchdown. How is the Broncos' secondary holding up this summer?

Legwold: The Broncos would feel better if Bailey felt better. Bailey did not practice Sunday or Monday because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason loss in Seattle and is still a major question mark for Thursday's game. Bailey has been on the field for practice, but has not participated in any of the drills. The end result means Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would likely line up much of the time in Bailey's left cornerback spot. Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the more athletic sidekicks the Broncos have had for Bailey since Bailey arrived in 2004. Chris Harris and Tony Carter, the player who gave Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the game-tying bomb last January, will play in the nickel and dime as well. But overall the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs -- six corners, five safeties -- and can mix and match for almost every situation. They have flexibility and use it, so every defensive back in uniform Thursday night could see some action in the defense.