If you looked at the Ravens' schedule a few weeks ago, it seemed like little more than an intriguing late-season test against a fellow divisional leader, a chance to glimpse the revived Peyton Manning in his unfamiliar orange uniform.
But after a tumultuous week in Ravenstown, Sunday's home game against Denver Broncos shapes up as something far bigger — a potential pivot point in the uncertain plot of the 2012 season.
The Ravens hope to end a streak of dispiriting losses in which their wounded defense has failed to hold late-game leads. They yearn to grab a playoff berth that will hang tantalizingly before them for a third straight week. They want to put behind them questions about inconsistency and Monday's abrupt firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
The Ravens must be feeling some desperation, said CBS analyst Shannon Sharpe, who played for both Baltimore and Denver. "They could go from being in total control of their division to being out of the playoffs in a few weeks," Sharpe said. "They know what's going on."
Given all those doubt-inflected storylines, the Ravens could be forgiven for seeing Manning as a horror-movie monster, popping out of the closet at their moment of greatest vulnerability.
He regularly tormented them and Baltimore fans during his 13 years as the face of the reviled Indianapolis Colts. But many presumed him gone and buried by a neck injury that cost him all of last season.
Not so fast.
He's back, leading a new team and looking about as good as he ever did. Just as the Ravens are reeling, Manning has the Broncos rolling.
"Oh, man," said Ravens safety Ed Reed, giving a mordant laugh at the thought of matching up with Manning. "Peyton throws to everybody, man. He's still Peyton Manning. That's the reason why they've won, what, the last eight games or something like that? He's still Peyton."
The Ravens might feel primed to battle the sure Hall-of-Famer if they were certain to have Ray Lewis patrolling the middle of the field and Terrell Suggs racing at Manning from the edge of the line. But it's unclear if either superstar will play on Sunday. The Ravens are certain to be without linebacker Jameel McClain, who usually calls the defensive signals in Lewis' absence, and Lardarius Webb, their top cover man. Lewis' direct fill-in, Dannell Ellerbe, is also questionable for the game.
And those are just the problems on one side of the ball. The tattered defense wasn't even the main story of the week at the team's Owings Mills training facility. That was Coach John Harbaugh's decision to fire Cameron late in his fifth season as offensive coordinator. Though fans had spent years calling for Cameron's head, the timing nonetheless sent shockwaves through the NFL.
"It's certainly unique to make that kind of change on a 9-4 team in December," said Fox NFL analyst and former Ravens coach Brian Billick. "I don't know that I've ever seen that happen before."
In 2006, Billick fired his offensive coordinator, Jim Fassel, and assumed play-calling duties himself. The move, made in October, was widely credited with inspiring a 9-1 stretch run for those Ravens.
"It can be good to make that kind of change," Billick said. "The good thing that can happen is it puts the onus back on the players. I don't know if they wanted Cam Cameron out, but clearly, John Harbaugh thought there was a problem. Now, the bullseye moves to the players. For Joe Flacco, you say, 'OK, if this was an issue, now it's out of the way, and you have to step up.' "
Cameron's firing followed last Sunday's 31-28 overtime loss to the Washington Redskins. On offense, the game fit a troubling pattern, as the Ravens looked unstoppable in the first half and nearly helpless for much of the second. The inconsistency of the unit, and especially Flacco, has taken center stage, because the Ravens can no longer count on a ferocious defense to bail them out of close game.
As he fielded questions about Cameron's removal, Flacco said the offense has underachieved. "I think we're working on becoming a very good offense around here," he said. "And I think we all probably wish it would have happened a little bit quicker. But I think we're still working toward that."
He and other offensive leaders such as Ray Rice did what Billick suggested and put the burden on themselves instead of Cameron or his replacement, Jim Caldwell. "Cam called a great game last week," Rice said. "Obviously, we didn't win. But he doesn't put on the pads for us, so we can't be naive about that."
The Ravens don't have time to revamp their whole offense, even if they wanted to. Caldwell said as much when he took questions for the first time as the team's offensive coordinator. He promised only to "add a few wrinkles here and there."
In a devilish twist, Caldwell will face the immense burden of outscoring Manning, the superstar he once coached in Indianapolis. The Broncos have scored more than 30 points six times during their eight-game winning streak. And Manning is on pace to post the second-highest marks of his illustrious career in yards, touchdown passes and completion percentage. This after a neck injury had many analysts suggesting he should retire and after the Colts ditched him in favor of the next big thing: Andrew Luck.
"You know, it sort of looks like Indy over there to me," Reed said of watching Broncos game film. "Just the things he's doing, looking at Peyton on the sideline — you watch the games — you see Peyton on the sideline, he's coaching everybody. That's no different from when he was in Indy."
Caldwell didn't sound terribly surprised at the latest chapter authored by his former player. "One of the things that [once] you've been around him awhile, you know he's one of those guys that can literally fight through any — and everything," he said. "If there's a guy that can come back from the type of surgeries that he's had, he could do it — never doubted that."
With an 8-2 career record against generally tougher Ravens defenses, you might assume Manning is licking his chops for Sunday's matchup. But he was careful to pay his respects in mid-week remarks, calling Reed the best safety in the league and praising the Ravens' stinginess near the goal line.
Last dance for Lewis, Manning?
From the standpoint of pure football fandom, another question lingers: Will Lewis and Manning — players who define an NFL generation on each side of the ball — match wits at M&T Bank Stadium, conceivably for the final time?
Lewis' torn right triceps might not allow it, and they could yet face each other in the playoffs or next season. But don't be too quick to take the potential meeting for granted.
Maybe you don't associate the two in your mind. Manning is football royalty — a second-generation NFL star, a former No. 1 overall pick, one of America's favorite comic pitchmen. Lewis is the product of a broken home — originally written off as too small to be great but ultimately an icon of fear and mayhem on the field.
If you really think about it, though, they have a lot in common.
They came into the league two years apart. Both reached elite status quickly and have held it longer than all but a few players in history. Both practice a histrionic style of leadership that made them the faces of their respective franchises. Both are dogged students of game film, always searching for the patterns that might be missed by less careful eyes. Both are playing on after injuries that had many observers questioning their football mortality.
"They're the two pre-eminent players of their generation at their positions and both could go down among the top 10 of all time," said Sharpe, himself a Hall-of-Famer. "It's the same for both of them: I want to be great. I prepare be great. I demand greatness of my teammates."
Manning certainly sees those qualities in Lewis. "His passion, his intensity — it's the same now as it was back in 1998 when I played against him for my first time in Baltimore," he said. "I have tremendous respect for the way he's played the game. And I don't know if anybody looks forward to playing against Ray Lewis, but … it's a tremendous challenge."