Ravens 28, Redskins 31
Strategy: In his last day on the job before being fired Monday morning after five years in Baltimore, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called one of his more effective games even though mounting behind-the-scenes discord ultimately led to his dismissal.With bruising fullback Vonta Leach plowing through defenders and Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice dancing upfield, the Ravens used their running game to pile up a season-high 186 yards. Quarterback Joe Flacco targeted gimpy Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall on both of Anquan Boldin's touchdowns. The shotgun formation was utilized on 17 of 58 snaps with just four no-huddles. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees aggressively attacked quarterback Robert Griffin III with Paul Kruger and Arthur Jones' hustling pursuit containing the dynamic rookie as Baltimore had three sacks and eight quarterback hits. Griffin didn't finish due to a sprained knee as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata crashed into him late in the fourth quarter.
Personnel: Injuries to Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe have shredded inside linebacker depth, which helped bullish Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris press his advantage as he broke through arm tackle attempts. Albert McClellan shifted inside to start ahead of Brendon Ayanbadejo, and third-stringer Josh Bynes was forced to play a career-high 44 snaps with mixed results. The Ravens' iron men with 100-percent participation were Michael Oher, Jah Reid, Kelechi Osemele and Matt Birk, Torrey Smith, Flacco, Ed Reed and Kruger. Starting cornerbacks Corey Graham and Cary Williams played 97 percent of the snaps. Ngata's health has improved markedly, allowing him to go up to 88 percent participation as he turned in a strong performance. The combination of Rice (43 snaps) and Leach (39 snaps) led to Rice's 121 yards, 46-yard jaunt and a 6.1 average per carry. Jones contributed 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits in just 38 snaps, continuing the upward trend of his play as the replacement for defensive end Pernell McPhee.
What went right: Flacco was sharp early in exploiting Hall, who was a detriment to the Redskins' secondary as he hobbled in vain behind Boldin. Rice and backup Bernard Pierce (career-high 53 yards) were physical and elusive, hitting stride in the open field. Tight end Dennis Pitta found seams for five catches and a touchdown. Kruger and Jones excelled. Courtney Upshaw was extremely sound in defending the pistol offense read-option schemes. Jacoby Jones chipped in a 38-yard kickoff return.
What went wrong: The offensive line and Flacco failed to handle overload blitzes, leading to an interception and lost fumble. Flacco's lack of pocket awareness is becoming a bigger problem late in the season as he fails to use an internal clock to know when to get rid of the football. It would help him if receivers created separation faster, and there was more diversity in the route tree of the playbook. Oher struggled against fast edge rushers, a recurring issue. Reserve cornerback Chris Johnson was overmatched against Pierre Garcon on a late touchdown pass that led to the game-tying score. The connection between Flacco and Smith is broken lately with the former University of Maryland standout catching just one pass on three targets. Tackling was substandard on a sloppy field with a season-high 17 missed as Reed whiffed on three tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda suffered a severe sprained right ankle. Middle linebacker Jameel McClain hurt his neck, further thinning the inside linebacker position. Punter Sam Koch outkicked his coverage in overtime on a 64-yard return where Anthony Allen fell down in the open field as Bynes and several others overpursued or got blocked.
Turning point: Unable to stop rookie backup quarterback Kirk Cousins from throwing a touchdown to Garcon and scoring a game-tying two-point conversion draw in the final minute of regulation, the costly punt team breakdown ultimately positioned the Redskins for the game-winning field goal.
X-factor: Oher and Osemele's vulnerability against the Redskins doesn't bode well for the potential chaos that could unfold against the Denver Broncos' vaunted, speedy pass rushing tandem of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. — Aaron Wilson
Broncos 26, Raiders 13
Strategy: Offensively, it's all about quarterback Peyton Manning, who is once again thriving in an up-tempo, shotgun spread passing attack that is similar to the one he orchestrated with the Indianapolis Colts. He isn't always in the shotgun, but when he is, the Broncos usually put three or more wide receivers out on the field. While the Broncos technically have a 4-3 base defense, they mix up their looks to take advantage of their versatile personnel. And against the Raiders, they spent a lot of the game in nickel to counter their passing attack. They blitzed a fair amount on passing downs, sometimes only going with one down lineman in third-and-long situations.
Personnel: Manning has tall targets to throw to. Standout wide receiver Demaryius Thomas is 6-foot-3, as is Eric Decker. Manning also likes throwing to 6-foot-4 tight end Joel Dreessen in the red zone. Knowshon Moreno has done a serviceable job replacing former Ravens running back Willis McGahee, who is on injured reserve. In outside linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumeril, the Broncos have one of the NFL's best pass-rushing tandems. Cornerback Champ Bailey is 34, but he is still playing at a high level. He could match up with Torrey Smith on Sunday.
What went right: The Broncos hogged the ball for nearly two-thirds of their 26-13 win over the Raiders. They ran the ball well enough to keep the Raiders defense honest, which opened up the play-action passing game. Manning, still one of the NFL's most accurate quarterbacks, played another strong game, throwing for 310 yards and a touchdown and helping the Broncos convert on half of their third-downs. They only sacked Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer once, but harassed him often, intercepted one pass, and forced him to fumble once.
What went wrong: This would have been a blowout if the Broncos, who had fared pretty well in red-zone offense before this game, had been better in that area; they scored two touchdowns on seven red-zone trips. The defense allowed 6.9 yards per play, an average that was bumped up by a 36-yard run around the right end by speedy running back Darren McFadden and a 56-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Darrius Heyward-Bey. Two Broncos defensive backs whiffed on tackles on the latter.
Turning point: The Broncos led, 16-7, with 5:53 left in the third quarter when Miller put the game away with an impressive individual effort. Rushing around right tackle Khalif Barnes, he ducked under the towering tackle's block to get around the edge then swatted the ball out of Palmer's hand. The Broncos recovered at the Raiders' 2-yard line and scored two plays later.
X-factor: In back-to-back weeks, the Ravens lost to a middle-aged third-string quarterback and then a pair of rookies, though Washington's Robert Griffin III hasn't played line one. Now the Ravens will have to match wits with Manning, who is as good as anyone as making adjustments at the line. Linebacker Ray Lewis could be back for Sunday's chess match. But the bigger issue is defending Manning, who can still zip the ball to his wide receivers, after the snap.— Matt VenselCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun