The Ravens wouldn't be walking into Sports Authority Field at Mile High as the defending Super Bowl champions Thursday night had they not been dominant when it mattered in the most important 20 yards of the field.
Last season, the Ravens had one of the league's best red-zone defenses and their offense was pretty good inside their opponent's 20-yard line, too. They took it to another level in the playoffs, scoring touchdowns on 10 of their 14 trips inside the red zone and beating the San Francisco 49ers with that dramatic goal-line stand.
There are a lot of unknowns entering the season -- that's part of what makes football fun -- but one of the biggest for the Ravens will be how they perform in the red zone this season after setting the bar so high a season ago.
Only the Miami Dolphins defended better inside the red zone last season than the Ravens, who uncharacteristically were in the bottom half of the league in total yards allowed but did the bend-but-don't-break thing again. They gave up seven points on just 42.9 red-zone opportunities and in the postseason their opponents scored just six touchdowns in 16 attempts.
It must be noted, especially this week, that the Denver Broncos scored on all three of their red-zone trips in the divisional round.
But that defense has been gutted and totally remodeled. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, replaced by Daryl Smith, Michael Huff, Elvis Dumervil and Arthur Brown. We'll soon see how the defense meshes, but with savvy play-calling from Dean Pees and a strong trio of cornerbacks, I'm guessing the defense will be just fine in the red zone again.
I'm not as optimistic about the offense. After finishing fifth with a red-zone touchdown percentage of 61.0 during the regular season, the Ravens were even better in the playoffs. But seven of their 10 red-zone touchdowns in the postseason came on passes tossed by Joe Flacco to Anquan Boldin, who got traded, and Dennis Pitta, who is out with a hip injury.
The Ravens are hoping that slot receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark will help fill the void, but they will be hard-pressed to produce like those two.
They may have to rely on the power running game near the goal line to compensate for those losses, which probably played into the decision to bring back fullback Vonta Leach.
Like I said, red-zone offense is a big unknown for the Ravens, as is red-zone defense. One thing we do know, though, is that exceling in those areas is a must to win a Super Bowl.