Final thoughts as kickoff between Ravens-Broncos approaches

DENVER -- There isn’t a whole lot left to say about tonight’s Ravens-Denver Broncos NFL season opener. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked about everything from the matchups to the motivations. We’ve even talked about stadium banners, the surest sign that there is a lot of attention on tonight’s rematch of the AFC divisional playoff thriller in January, won in double overtime by the Ravens. As we get closer to kickoff, here are my final thoughts about the game:

For all the talk about the thin mountain air, the temperature may turn out to be a significant factor as well. It’s supposed to be in the mid 80s come kickoff time, which should test the conditioning of the teams. As my colleague Matt Vensel pointed out in yesterday’s paper, the Broncos and Ravens ranked second and third last year in how quickly they got up to the line of scrimmage and ran plays. It will be interesting to see if the big linemen will allow both offenses to maintain a frenzied pace in this heat.

Ravens strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil did a great job this week, handling all the questions about his messy divorce from Denver and not providing the Broncos with any bulletin board material. I’m sure it wasn’t easy because in talking to a couple of his brothers, it was clear that the pass rusher was really hurt by how things went down. I’m not sure how it will turn out but my guess is that Dumervil will be the most motivated player on the field tonight.

The last I heard was that despite Ray Rice’s sales pitch, former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was not planning on being at the game tonight. That could always change but it sounds like Lewis is quite busy preparing for his ESPN debut and watching his sons play football over the next three days. Nothing against Lewis but I think staying away is probably a good move. If he was on the sideline, the cameras would probably be fixated on him almost as much as the action on the field. Lewis will have his day back in the spotlight on Sept. 22 when he goes into the Ravens’ Ring of Honor.

With elite pass rusher Von Miller and top cornerback Champ Bailey sidelined tonight, the belief, at least among those in Denver, is that the Ravens are going to put the ball in the air early and often. I’m sure quarterback Joe Flacco will get plenty of opportunities to make plays. However, I still expect to see a heavy dose of Rice and Bernard Pierce especially early in the game. The Broncos run defense was dominant last year but the Ravens really need to extend drives and keep Manning off the field. Establishing the run is the best way to do that.

At the risk of dredging up a tired topic that Baltimore sports fans have moved on from, it remains a shame that the Ravens are opening up the season in Denver while the Orioles are playing the Chicago White Sox tonight in a game that they need to win probably in front of less than 10,000 people. I’ve been consistent in saying that there are no winners here, except maybe the Broncos and their fans. I’ve also said that everybody shares in the blame. The Ravens and the NFL clearly were presumptuous in believing that Major League Baseball and the Orioles would just move the baseball game at Camden Yards with little effort. That’s nonsense because such a change requires approval from the Orioles, White Sox, MLB and the players association which isn’t easy to get. The NFL, which is used to getting its way, has also
played games on the first night of Rosh Hashanah in the past so using that as the reason for not moving the game to the Wednesday night, when the Orioles were in Cleveland, is suspect.

As for the Orioles, make no mistake, they weren’t motivated to make this work. Players play day games after night games all the time and both the Orioles and White Sox had short trips into town last night. The Orioles obviously felt the NFL and Ravens were trying to bully them around, which a Peter Angelos-led organization is not going to stand for. That’s all well and good but the result will be an empty Camden Yards tonight and very few Baltimore fans even watching the game from home, at least from the fifth inning or so on. An opportunity for a memorable sports day in the city was missed. It’s a bad look all around.

Both of these teams have electric return men in Jacoby Jones and Trindon Holliday but it’s going to be tough for them to factor into the game. Broncos kicker Matt Prater led the league last year in touchbacks, so Jones’ chances may be minimal. And with so much change and so much youth on their coverage teams, I’d expect the Ravens to avoid Holliday at all costs after he burned them for two touchdowns in January.

This probably could be said about a lot of games, but I think the key to winning for the Ravens will be the play of their cornerbacks. You just know that Peyton Manning is licking his chops to test Lardarius Webb, who hasn’t played a meaningful football game in 11 months, and can’t wait to go after Jimmy Smith and Chykie Brown, both of whom struggled in the preseason. And while Corey Graham picked off Manning twice in January, I think the quarterback will go at him as well, especially because Graham will be guarding Wes Welker more times than not. With Tom Brady throwing him the ball, Welker had a nice day against Graham in the AFC championship game.

The list of Ravens’ inactives will probably come out about an hour and a half before kickoff but don’t expect too much drama. Defensive end Arthur Jones has already been declared out, while center Ryan Jensen, wide receiver Deonte Thompson and defensive lineman Brandon Williams are all not expected to play. That’s four of the eight spots right there.  

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