This week, Chris Hall of DenverBroncos.com discussed the Broncos’ upcoming playoff opener against Baltimore with Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway in the latest installment of Elway Access.
The Broncos finished the season on an 11-game winning streak for a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC going into the playoffs. It was a year that ranked among the best regular seasons in franchise history, but those accomplishments will mean little if they are not followed by a strong postseason run. The players’ incentive for all their hard work throughout the year boils down to what happens over the next few weeks.
“Playoff football is exciting, that’s what you play for,” Elway said. “That’s what you start working out in March for and go through training camp to get in the position that we are right now.”
One of the biggest factors in the team’s success has been quarterback Peyton Manning’s record-setting regular season. With that portion of the year complete, Elway said that looking back, he’s been thrilled to see Manning perform so well after missing 2011 due to injury.
“No. 1, I’m happy for Peyton Manning, with the career that he’s had in the NFL and what he’s done for this game, for him to be able to bounce back like he has, I’m happy for him that he’s reached the level that he has again,” Elway said. “He’s pretty close to the Peyton of old. No. 2, I’m thrilled for us, the Broncos, the fact that he’s playing that well because we’re back in that No. 1 seed, back as one of the elite teams in this league. We’re able to go out and start the playoffs this week and compete for a Super Bowl championship. That’s why we play the game and why we work at this game.”
Denver is set for a rematch with the Ravens Saturday at 2:30 p.m. MST at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. In the first meeting of the season between the teams, the Broncos led 31-3 entering the fourth quarter and defeated Baltimore by a final score of 34-17. A key difference going into Saturday’s game is the health of the Ravens defense, which has welcomed back a trio of key contributors who were injured and inactive in Week 15.
“They’re a lot healthier now than they were when we played them,” Elway said. “(Linebacker) Ray Lewis was down, (Dannell) Ellerbe, their other inside linebacker, was down. So they were really banged up the last time we played them. They’re going to be at full strength, or close to full strength, this time.”
The return of those players has made one of Baltimore’s strengths throughout the season – the team’s red-zone defense – even more formidable. The Ravens’ playoff-opening win over Indianapolis in the Wild Card Round was highlighted by a bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort that yielded 25 first downs and 419 yards of total offense but only nine points.
“One thing that they are, and you noticed it last week also, was the fact that down in the red zone, they’re as good as anybody in the league,” Elway said. “I think they’re top 5, if not the best red-zone defense in the league. Last week they gave up three field goals to Indianapolis even though Indianapolis had the ball for 37 minutes. That’s why it’s going to be important for us to not only be good between the 20s, but when you get down in the red zone, we have to get it into the end zone.”
Another significant difference between Saturday’s game and the Week 15 matchup in Baltimore is the venue. Denver will have the advantage of playing in front of a home crowd that helped the Broncos win seven of their eight home games during the regular season.
“It will be great that we’re playing at Sports Authority Field at Mile High with the fans behind us,” Elway said. “It will bring back that great playoff atmosphere, which is great for the fans. We’ve played better at home. We did a better job this year, we’re 7-1 at home. We’re comfortable there and the fans have been great the whole year. But this is a different atmosphere and they’re going to be a big part of it, especially when (the Ravens are) on offense.”