NFL Analysis: Baltimore Returns To The Scene Of The Crime On Thursday Night

We’re back at the scene of the crime, so to speak, for the opening of the 2013 NFL season. The Baltimore Ravens visit the Denver Broncos on Thursday night to kick off the year in an 8:30 PM ET kickoff on NBC.

The last time these two teams faced was the second round of last year’s playoffs, which had about as stunning an end to regulation as we’ll ever see, when Denver free safety Rahim Moore allowed Baltimore receiver Jacoby Jones to get behind him for a 70-yard touchdown catch that tied the game 35-35, and ultimately allowed the Ravens to win in overtime. It was a historic moment for a Baltimore team, who rode that into an improbable Super Bowl championship ride.

Baltimore has said goodbye to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the two mainstays of a defense that has been among the league’s best since 2000. This is now Joe Flacco’s team, and the quarterback will be especially scrutinized after an offseason where his contract negotiations involved getting the most money possible for himself, even it meant the team had to lose key parts—Reed being one, and receiver Anquan Boldin another.

Flacco has talked big and backed it up before—he played extraordinarily well in last year’s postseason, and while I think Jones deserved MVP of the Super Bowl itself (108-yard kickoff return, and a 70-yard touchdown catch on an underthrown ball), Flacco was clearly the Ravens’ most valuable player on the four playoff games taken as a whole. Now the quarterback has to show he can carry a team without the veteran leadership that Lewis and Reed provided for so many years.

Baltimore still has good talent though, and they’re a better team than Denver, at least right now. The Broncos are without linebacker Von Miller, who was suspended for the first six games on a substance violation. Denver is also without defensive end Elvis Dumervil—ironically now in Baltimore playing outside linebacker in the Ravens’ 3-4 scheme.

Where is Denver going to find a pass rush to get on Flacco? And if they don’t get pressure, they’re in a lot of trouble. Jones and fellow receiver Torrey Smith ate the Denver corners for breakfast throughout last year’s playoff game, and now Champ Bailey is dealing with some foot problems. Baltimore, with Flacco’s strong arm, is not at all hesitant at going down the field to their big targets, and I think the Ravens are going to make a lot of hay in the air.

The Baltimore defense doesn’t have the same leadership without Lewis and Reed, but they might be more talented this year. They’ve added Dumervil, they have Terrell Suggs fully healthy, and they have corner Lardarius Webb, who missed almost all of last year, back healthy. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of the intangibles Lewis brought, but if the defense finds another way to motivate itself, they’re better than last season.

I can really think of only two reasons to pick Denver in this game, and they’re Peyton Manning and the fact the game is in Denver. And neither of those are insignificant reasons. Manning’s got a new receiver to play with in Wes Welker, and if his offensive line protects him, the future Hall of Fame quarterback will keep his team in the game and give them every chance to win.

But the Broncos are a 3-1 favorite on the Las Vegas moneyline, something that strikes me as completely disproportionate.  TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis will pick each game this year outright, using the moneyline, rather than the pointspread as the measuring stick. As Herm Edwards tells us, “You play to win the game.” I’ll take the Ravens to win the game outright at +255, and for it at minimum to be within a field goal either way.