Oftentimes in football the delivery can be more powerful than the message. Example: Late in the season Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil addressed the possibility of Denver's earning home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Seated at his locker stall, the seven-year veteran gulped from his protein shake, snapped its lid closed and turned to his questioner with intense, unblinking eyes.
"It would be hell to come here," he said, his voice barely rising above a whisper.
Dumervil wasn't being arrogant; he was just speaking to the realities of playing against Peyton Manning and the Broncos' no-huddle offense a mile above sea level, which is the chore facing first the Ravens, on Saturday, and then any other AFC team that might run into the Broncos en route to the Super Bowl in New Orleans. (Those Ravens, by the way, were 4--4 on the road and in the bottom third of the NFL in points and yards away from home.)
That Denver secured the No. 1 seed on the final weekend of the regular season is crucial for the Broncos' chances, because Manning's efficiency numbers have been off the charts at home, where he has thrown for 22 TDs, with only three interceptions (versus 15 and eight on the road). In each of his last six games at Sports Authority Field—the final two wins by 22 and 35 points—he had three TDs, and the Broncos trailed just twice in those games, for a total of barely 16 minutes (and never in the second half).
For as much attention as Manning receives, Denver's running game should not be overlooked, having churned out more than 118 yards in five of the last six home games. Knowshon Moreno, who was a healthy inactive for eight straight weeks before Willis McGahee's season-ending knee injury on Nov. 21, has run for at least 100 yards in two of his last four games and has a TD in three of his last four.
Combined, that multifaceted offensive attack has allowed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to turn loose Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller (page 56), relentless pass rushers who helped Denver tie for the NFL lead with 52 sacks. Thirty-eight of those came in the second halves of games, including 22 in the fourth quarter, when opponents were passing more, scrambling to catch up.
Despite all of this—and despite being only the sixth team since 1978, when the league started playing a 16-game season, to end the year with 11 straight wins—the Broncos are taking nothing for granted. Among the previous five such teams, only the 2003 Patriots won a Super Bowl; the '93 Oilers and the '09 Chargers lost their playoff openers.
Denverites have another reason to be circumspect. Although the Broncos are 13--3 alltime at home in the playoffs, two of the defeats came after first-round byes. Coach John Fox figures to bring up those losses to sober his squad—not that it needs it. His team has been dominant after long breaks, beating the Saints 34--14 after the bye, then the Ravens 34--17 after 10 days off.
Elvis Dumervil as Dante Alighieri. Denver in January: This is what football hell looks like.
When Denver has the ball ...
Their offense revolves around you-know-who. Take away one of his targets—WRs Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker or Brandon Stokley, or TE Jacob Tamme—and Manning's O.K. going elsewhere; and he's patient enough to wait for ball hawking FS Ed Reed to get aggressive before going deep. Denver has been lethal passing on first-and-goal, where Manning tied for second in the NFL with eight TDs, and the Ravens have ceded TDs in 10 of their last 12 goal-to-gos, including in Sunday's win.
At 6' 3", 229 pounds, Demaryius Thomas is tough one-on-one, but the Ravens' secondary (which allowed Reggie Wayne 114 yards on Sunday) likely won't commit an extra defender to him; that would create opportunities for Eric Decker, who has four TDs in his last two games. Thomas one-on-one? Denver will take that all day.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Peyton Manning's QB rating passing to Demaryius Thomas, best for any NFL pair.
Sacks, hits and hurries allowed by the Broncos' line, fewest in the NFL.
DOUG KAPUSTIN (MANNING)
ALL ABOUT THE W Manning had a season-low 204 yards against the Ravens in Week 15, but he hasn't lost to them in his last seven meetings.
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA (DECKER)