Good Morning, Broncos fans! Denver's upcoming trip to Baltimore has loomed as a big game since the moment the 2012 schedule was released, but the showdown has become more crucial by the day.
Although the matchup will likely go a long way to determining who the AFC's number-two seed is, things have suddenly gotten desperate for the Ravens (9-4), who remain stuck on nine wins after yesterday's 31-28 loss to Washington (7-6). It was Baltimore's second consecutive loss, and things won't get any easier for them; after the Broncos, they'll host the Giants and then head to Cincinnati to close out the regular season.
Adding to the pain of having lost two straight nailbiters, the already banged-up Ravens lost two more of their best players to injury yesterday - an ankle sprain left Baltimore guard Marshal Yanda on crutches after the game, and Jeff Legwold says it could be a season-ending injury for the Pro Bowler. LB Jameel McClain suffered a neck injury that had him in serious pain, although X-rays were negative.
They can ill afford to lose either player, but McClain's injury could be particularly devastating to the Ravens this week, as they have already been without fellow starting linebacker Dannell Ellerbe for two games, and Terrell Suggs yesterday. It's unclear whether Ellerbe or Suggs will be back for Sunday, and although Ray Lewis is still aiming to play, it appears far from certain that he will.
Baltimore had already lost Lardarius Webb for the season in October, and they also have been missing fellow starting corner Jimmy Smith, who had hernia surgery last month. Smith returned to practice on Wednesday, and there's also a possibility he will be back to face the Broncos.
We will hear many times this week about how Denver has struggled in Baltimore, where they've never beaten the Ravens. But this is not your older brother's Ravens, and that was true before they became decimated by injuries.
History means nothing when it comes to determining the outcomes of games like Sunday's, and right now, things are looking pretty good for the Broncos.
We cannot discuss the AFC playoff picture without mentioning tonight's battle between the Texans (11-1) and Patriots (9-3) at Foxboro. Since both teams beat the Broncos earlier in the season, Denver would need to finish with more wins than either team to gain a higher playoff seeding, provided that Houston holds off Indy in the AFCS.
Beyond tonight, Houston faces Indy twice and hosts the Vikings, and the Broncos would need to run the table and have the Texans drop three of their last four games in order to pass them. Unlikely.
New England hosts San Francisco next Sunday, before easier matchups at Jacksonville and against Miami at home. A loss tonight would drop them a full game behind the Broncos, and then Denver would hold its first-round-bye destiny in its own hands.
Don't forget about the Colts (9-4), who are now tied with the Ravens after yet another comeback win, this time a 27-23 result over the Titans (4-9) that required Andrew Luck and old friend Cassius Vaughn (who had a three-yard pick-six off Jake Locker) leading them back from a 20-7 halftime deficit. Sandwiched within their away-and-home duo with the Texans, Indy has a trip to Arrowhead left on their schedule, and they still have a very real chance to wrest the AFCS away from Houston.
Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are now each 7-6 after stumbling yesterday, and have even allowed the LOLJets (6-7) - who won 17-10 over the Jaguars (2-11) to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The Steelers lost to none other than the Chargers (5-8), who held on for a 34-24 victory after jumping out to stunning leads of 27-3 and 34-10. So typical of a Norv-led team, and can you believe they have not yet been eliminated from the playoffs? At this point, don't you want to see them make the postseason, just to make Dean Spanos squirm like never before? And, who wouldn't mind seeing Norv save his hide, and that of A.J. Smith's? None of this is going to happen, but it's still fun to imagine.
Cincy allowed Dallas (7-6) to score 10 points in the game's final seven minutes - including a Dan Bailey 40-yarder at the gun - to cap off a 20-19 Cowboys win, which of course was a rather emotional one as the team mourns the loss of one teammate at the hands of another.
At 5-8, San Diego sits atop a four-team crowd with Buffalo, Cleveland, and Miami. Of that group, only the Chargers and Browns won yesterday, with Cleveland laying a 30-7 beatdown on the Chiefs (2-11) and former Browncos Brady Quinn and Peyton Hillis. Quinn was a brutal 10 of 21 for 159 yards, a pick, and five sacks, while Hillis gained 17 yards on six touches. At this point, Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel may have less of a chance than Smith and Turner do of holding onto their gigs.
Atlanta (11-2) was stunned by Carolina (4-9) and Cam Newton in a 30-20 Panthers victory that saw the home team jump out to a 23-0 third-quarter lead. Newton produced 396 yards of offense and three touchdowns, which should re-spark talk of how great a talent he is. Also, he's just 23 years old.
Still, the Falcons have a pretty strong hold on the NFC's top seed, even with the Niners and Packers gaining ground.
The G-Men are tied in the NFC standings with the Seahawks, who thoroughly embarrassed Arizona (4-9) by turning them over eight times and shutting them out 58-0.
Chicago is also 8-5 after dropping their second straight game, this one a 21-14 loss to the Vikings (7-6), who picked off Jay Cutler twice and returned the second one to paydirt for the game's difference.
Washington and Dallas remain a game behind the Giants in the NFCE, while the Vikings are tied with them but currently face the problem of being third in their division.
Tampa Bay's (6-7) playoff hopes are on life support after they were stunned at home by the Eagles (4-9), who got two touchdown passes from Nick Foles - including one at the gun - in the game's final four minutes. The Saints are also on the verge of elimination after their loss to the Giants.
Although they're riding an eight-game win streak, the Broncos are of course focusing on the things they would like to fix, like a red-zone offense that sputtered on Thursday.
Von Miller is now tied with Elvis Dumervil (this season) and Dennis Smith (1989) for the most fumbles forced by a Bronco within a single season, and he's one behind Elvis's 2009 campaign for the most sacks ever.
Andy Benoit, Mike Tanier, the Football Outsiders, Will Brinson, Bill Barnwell, Mike Silver, Clark Judge, Peter King, Don Banks, Jason Cole, John Clayton, and Alex Marvez recap the day's action; Silver strangely looks at Sunday as potential proof that there are no great teams in this year's NFL, but who thought any of the squads that played yesterday are great? Presumably we are all able to look beyond a team's record to evaluate them, and anyone who took the time to do so knew that the Falcons and Ravens and their gaudy records were paper tigers to an extent.
PS. The Niners may qualify as a great team, but it's a little too early in their transition to Colin Kaepernick to know for certain.
The current and former Saints involved in the bounty case rejected a last-minute settlement offer from the league; Paul Tagliabue is expected to rule by Thursday. Hmm, so if the league's case is so ironclad, why are they making offers of any kind at this point?
According to Peter King, at least seven NFL players have turned in their guns to the security details for their respective teams, following the Belcher/Perkins murder-suicide.
Additions: Peter King, 9:38am ET; Bill Barnwell, 10:09am ET; added note that Texans would need to hold of Colts for tiebreaker to matter over Broncos 10:31am ET