Jussel: Broncos hope to keep chances alive for the top seed in AFC

Three games remain for the Denver Broncos in the regular season.

Win them all, and they finish 13-3 and will have earned the third seed or better in the upcoming AFC playoffs.

Win them all, and they could finish with either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, unlikely given the fact the two teams currently in front of Denver, Houston and New England, have defeated the Broncos this season.

There is that ray of hope, however, because New England, like Denver 10-3, faces NFC power San Francisco today, while 11-2 Houston has two games remaining against 9-4 upstart Indianapolis.

Denver’s upward mobility in the playoff hunt faces its sternest test today in Baltimore, where the Ravens, now a game behind Denver at 9-4 thanks to Washington’s overtime win last week, have never lost at home to a Bronco team.

This game, barring serious gagging by the Broncos at home against Cleveland or Kansas City the final two weeks, would appear to be the battle for the third seed. But Baltimore, even with a win over Denver, faces the very real possibility of losing at least one more game, playing host to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (as usual, playing well late in the season), then finishing on the road at Cincinnati.

In reality, it matters little if the Broncos are third or fourth seed.

The third seed will earn the right to play at home in the first round against the sixth seed (currently Pittsburgh; quite possibly Cincinnati). The fourth seed will have a home matchup against No. 5, currently and very likely Indianapolis.

Six of one, half dozen of the other.

But a loss today, and Denver can kiss any chance of No. 1 or No. 2 seed and that coveted first-round bye bye-bye.

Denver at Baltimore has been “Groundhog Day” five times over: Denver tries to run. Ravens smother it. Denver tries to pass.  The Ravens get a sack or an interception. The Ravens run. Touchdown. The Ravens pass. Touchdown.

Slaughter after slaughter.

Er, hold on a minute.

Denver has a quarterback now, one Peyton Manning, who is pretty good.

He has played against the Ravens a bunch as a member of the Indianapolis Colts and is 8-2, with his only losses coming in his first and second seasons.

Manning makes a difference. Question is: Will it be enough?

Answer is: Probably.

As we have seen all season, Denver moves the ball and scores with Manning. The Broncos are averaging nearly 29 points a game, 10 points per game more than they scored last season.

And Denver’s defense is now capable of stopping the opponent, or at least slowing it plenty, allowing only 18 points per game.

The Bronco offense ranks as fourth-best in the league and so does the defense.

The Ravens, on the other hand, are riddles on both sides of the ball.

They have one of the best running backs in football in squatty Ray Rice. But they go eons without giving him the ball for some strange reason.

And they have a quarterback in Joe Flacco who has one of the league’s best arms. Problem is he seems to have little patience, consistently trying to hit the bomb with receivers mostly built for the possession game.

Rice, Flacco & Co. have sputtered enough this season to force the early-week firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, replacing him with one of Manning’s former coaches, Jim Caldwell.

That’s not good timing for Baltimore going into this one, late-season changes on a team that rates a mediocre 18th in the league offensively despite the heroics of Rice (993 yards and a 4.6-yard average).

Flacco has thrown for 3,220 yards and 247 yards per game, mediocre numbers at best. Flacco has also been sacked 31 times, one of the higher totals in the league.

The Raven defense was one of the best the league had ever seen. Key word there: was.

Injuries and aging have caused a drop-off.

Ray Lewis, a surefire Hall of Fame middle linebacker, has been out for almost two months with a torn triceps. He was hoping to play today, but he was limited in practice throughout the week and is questionable.

Terrell Suggs, the league’s sack master the past several seasons, has a torn bicep and also is questionable.

Jameel McClain, another starting linebacker, has a neck boo-boo and is listed as out.

That’s the way it has been for the Ravens this season on defense. Hence, they rank 24th in the league defensively, 23rd both against both the rush and pass.

The signs are there.

Denver’s five-game Baltimore slide ends today.

I’ll take my 10-3 record picking with or against the Broncos and say Denver keeps rolling, 24-20.

And, oh yes, go 49ers.

Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.


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