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Sunday, January 6, 2013
Ravens overmatched vs. 'machine'

By Ashley Fox
ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- Baltimore will have to short-circuit the MacBook to have a chance at beating Denver next Saturday. Remove the hard drive. Pour beer on the keyboard. Take a hammer to the screen. Whatever works.

That's the only way -- the only way -- the Ravens can beat the Broncos in Denver in that altitude at that stadium.

Wait. What? Let Ravens safety Bernard Pollard explain:

"We've got the MacBook that's going to be under center," Pollard said shortly after Baltimore ended the feel-good story of the season by beating the Indianapolis Colts 24-9 in a first-round playoff game. "That dude is a freaking computer man. He's one of the best in the game."

I've heard Peyton Manning called many things, but MacBook is a new one. It fits, though. Ravens killer would be another. When these next four weeks are all said and done, two-time Super Bowl champion might also be appropriate. Maybe even two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and five-time National Football League MVP.

Manning has the Broncos right where John Elway envisioned when the Broncos' vice president of football operations pulled off the coup of the offseason and signed the biggest free agent in NFL history.

Joe Flacco
Baltimore is 10-2 this season when Joe Flacco's average target is more than 9 yards downfield.

Denver won a playoff game a year ago with Tim Tebow. This team didn't lack talent. But now it has one of the best quarterbacks of all time under center, which is why the Broncos won 11 straight games to close the season and finished as the AFC's top seed.

Denver has had a week off. It has the biggest home-field advantage in the NFL because it is 5,280 feet above sea level. The altitude is a killer. The atmosphere at Sports Authority Field at Mile High will be raucous. And the Broncos know they can beat Baltimore because they already have -- 34-17 in Week 15, at M&T Bank Stadium.

The Ravens can talk all they want about how different they are now than they were then, and it is true. In that game, the defense didn't have Pollard or inside linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe. The offense was without guard Marshal Yanda, and the Broncos knocked wide receiver Torrey Smith and backup running back Bernard Pierce out of the game.

But unless Baltimore can take out Manning and do it early, it won't matter how different or how much better the Ravens are. It won't matter if Joe Flacco can throw the ball down the field like he did against the Colts. It won't matter if recently promoted offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell calls a sharp game. The Broncos with Manning will win, and it might not even be that close.

"We have to get in his face all the time, we have to," said Pollard, who also faced Manning during his previous stops in Kansas City and Houston. "All we can try to do is try to contain him. You're not going to stop him. The guy is a freaking machine. I've played against him plenty of times. I respect him. He's respected by so many in the league. For us as a team we have to continue to get in his face and disrupt some things.

"That dude's the MacBook. He's one of the best. I've always called him a machine. I've always called him a computer. Man, the guy studies. He understands. He's able to process things. That's why he will be in the Hall of Fame. The guy is the best quarterback in the National Football League, him and [New England's Tom] Brady, you look at [Green Bay's] Aaron Rodgers. You look at these guys, they're phenomenal."

Baltimore's quarterback was pretty good against the Colts. He completed only 12 passes, but he averaged an astounding 23.5 yards per completion. One completion was a short pass Ray Rice took 47 yards, but Flacco threw a 50-yard completion to Anquan Boldin that traveled nearly 60 yards in the air on the first drive of the second half and then a 46-yard completion to Boldin later in the third quarter.

Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning has won nine straight starts against the Ravens, including one this season.

"I love where he's at," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Flacco while standing in the Ravens' locker room with his father, Jack. "He made great throws. I'm proud of him. I think he's in a good spot."

Harbaugh knows the task ahead is a tough one. Manning has a nine-game winning streak against the Ravens, who haven't won a game in which Manning was the opponent's starting quarterback since 2001, back when Harbaugh was the special-teams coordinator for Philadelphia.

Baltimore did a solid job against Manning in the Week 15 loss this season -- Manning threw for only 204 yards and one touchdown. It was Baltimore's turnovers that were the killer, particularly the interception Flacco threw near the end of the first half that Chris Harris returned for a 98-yard touchdown.

"You're never going to stop Peyton Manning, but you have to control him," Harbaugh said. "We've been able to do that most of the times we've played him. Sometimes he's gotten away from us, but you've just got to keep him under control and hope he doesn't make too many big plays."

That will be the Ravens' plan. Control the MacBook.

It will not matter. The Broncos are too relentless on defense and have too many weapons on offense. The Ravens played passionate football in Ray Lewis' final home game on Sunday. This will be a different environment. And emotion only carries a team so far.

To advance to a second consecutive AFC title game, perhaps against the team that eliminated them a year ago (New England), Baltimore would be better off powering down the MacBook. It is the only way to win.