Thursday Night Football
Baltimore @ Denver
The NFL opener is a rubber match between non-division teams that played twice last season, with Denver whipping Baltimore 34-17 in Week 15 and Baltimore getting sweet revenge in a 38-35 overtime postseason thriller. The Ravens had more success against the Broncos in January in large part because playcaller Jim Caldwell committed to the run game, which will be Baltimore's 2013 offensive strength behind pile-driving lead blocker Vonta Leach. Whereas Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce combined for just 17 carries in the regular season loss, they rushed 35 times for 144 yards and a touchdown in the playoff win. Due to injuries, Denver is lighter at the second level with Wesley Woodyard (6'0/233) forced to Mike 'backer and 2012 sixth-rounder Danny Trevathan (0 career starts) replacing Woodyard on the weak side. Expect an easy 20-plus touches for Rice on Thursday night, and 7-12 carries for Pierce. Keep in mind Pierce's workload is more dependent on game flow, making him a dicey flex play. He'll get the football more if the Ravens are winning.
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As much as any offense in football, the Ravens are built to be a run-heavy, vertical shot-play team that pounds opponents on the ground to set up deep strikes for Torrey Smith. Baltimore returns all but one O-Line starter (C Matt Birk, replaced by Gino Gradkowski) from its Super Bowl run, and lost short to intermediate weapons Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. Particularly with All-Pro edge rusher Von Miller on suspension, expect a clean pocket allowing Joe Flacco time to scan and power throws downfield. With top Denver corner Champ Bailey having shown an inability to run with Smith last winter -- and now battling a painful foot sprain -- it would be surprising if Flacco and Smith did not connect on at least one bomb. They may hook up for several in a plus matchup for Smith. ... Beyond Rice and Smith, the Ravens' skill positions are comprised of rotating role players until someone shows well enough to fill a prominent role. In-line TE Ed Dickson blocks frequently and is no lock to outproduce passing-down slot tight end Dallas Clark. "No. 2" receiver Jacoby Jones could begin losing snaps to impressive UDFA Marlon Brown as soon as Week 1. Brandon Stokley is still a good football player, but he's 37 years old and hardly a fantasy asset.
Wednesday Update: The Broncos have ruled out Bailey, forcing slot corner Chris Harris into the starting lineup opposite RCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Look for Smith to run most of his routes into DRC and fill-in LCB Tony Carter's coverage on the perimeter, while Harris takes on Stokley inside. This remains a plus matchup for Smith.
I was surprised to see Denver favored by nine points when I checked the Week 1 lines last week. The number has since dropped to 7.5, but I think Vegas is still underrating Baltimore's ability to control the game. The Ravens' front seven is stacked, with Elvis Dumervil bookending Terrell Suggs at outside rusher and Haloti Ngata shifting to zero-technique nose with Chris Canty and Marcus Spears on the ends. Due to J.D. Walton and Dan Koppen's injuries, followed by the failed Ryan Lilja experiment, the Broncos will start 30-year-old journeyman and career guard Manuel Ramirez at center. Denver's interior line is likely to struggle versus Ngata and Canty, draining value from the Broncos' already production-limiting running back committee. It's a fantasy situation to avoid. Montee Ball would be the best bet only because he's the favorite for deep red-zone work, but it's conceivable no Denver back exceeds 12 touches on Thursday night. Broncos coaches don't trust "starter" Ronnie Hillman after three preseason fumbles, and Knowshon Moreno has yet to carve out a meaningful role outside of obvious pass-protection situations. For Denver backs, treat this as a wait-and-see opportunity. If a lead runner does emerge, favorable matchups await against the Giants, Raiders, Eagles, and Cowboys over the next four weeks.
Based on how these teams match up on paper, I expect no fewer than 35 attempts for Peyton Manning and a generous helping of stats for his pass catchers. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will square off with Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith on the perimeter in matchups Denver should win more than Baltimore's corners. The battle of the night will take place in the slot, where Ravens top CB Lardarius Webb has historically moved in sub-packages and when opponents use three wide receivers. The Broncos will go three-wide all night and all season, so Webb should draw Wes Welker for much of Thursday's game. I'd confidently start Thomas, Decker, and Welker in fantasy leagues, but also wouldn't be shocked if Webb gave Welker some trouble. I still think Welker catches five balls at a minimum. ... Denver's most intriguing August fantasy development was the emergence of TE Julius Thomas, a 25-year-old former power forward at Portland State. Thomas caught 12 passes for 123 yards in the preseason and will open the year as an every-down player. It's somewhat difficult to imagine Thomas sustaining consistent fantasy production behind Demaryius, Decker, and Welker, but he's a virtual lock for some big weeks and red-zone attention. View Thomas as a back-end TE1 start with some upside on Thursday night.
Score Prediction: Ravens 27, Broncos 24