The 2013 NFL regular season will commence on Thursday, September 5, when the Baltimore Ravens travel to play the Denver Broncos. It will be a rematch of their 2013 AFC divisional round encounter, which the Ravens won 38-35 in double overtime.
The question is, which key matchups will determine the season opener?
The Broncos and Ravens have no shortage of bad blood, as the way their postseason game ended was both legendary and gut-wrenching. The Broncos were minutes away from a victory before Rahim Moore's infamous blunder allowed Jacoby Jones to walk into the end zone.
Now, the two sides meet again to rekindle a budding rivalry.
Which matchups will determine the outcome of the game?
Joe Flacco vs. Peyton Manning
Over the past few months, no player has seen as rapid a rise in star power as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. He led Baltimore to Super Bowl XLVII, won the Super Bowl MVP award and defeated some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL to get that crown.
Flacco's encore performance begins with a game against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
As spectacular as he was during the postseason, Flacco has never been more than an above-average regular-season quarterback.
In 2012, he posted a career-high 3,817 passing yards and threw for 22 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
Flacco also completed 59.7 percent of his passes—the second consecutive season that he's hit less than 60 percent. During that time, Flacco threw for less than 200 yards in six starts and no more than one touchdown in 10 outings.
With a depleted receiving corps, Flacco will need a monumental effort to take down Manning and the Broncos.
During the 2012 regular season, Manning was second in the NFL in passer rating and third in touchdown passes, tying for the league lead by completing an incredible 68.6 percent of his throws. Now with a more experienced receiving corps that has added Wes Welker, Manning is in line for another legendary season.
He's also in need of a measure of revenge.
The Broncos and Ravens have a budding rivalry, as described by Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, and it ties right into Flacco and Manning. They're two of the most respected quarterbacks in the league and will decide this game when it's all said and done.
The winner of this positional matchup will not only determine the outcome of the game, but will proceed to build momentum as they guide their respective team toward a title.
Torrey Smith vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
With the departure of Anquan Boldin and the injury sustained by Dennis Pitta, the Ravens will be heavily dependent upon wide receiver Torrey Smith. Entering the third year of his career, Smith must translate his big-play ability into star status as a true No. 1 receiver.
That road to glory will start with a large hurdle.
According to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey will miss the season opener due to injury. That may seem like a blessing, and indeed it is, but it's far from a guarantee of success.
Smith will be defended by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Smith tallied 49 receptions for 855 yards and eight touchdowns during the 2012 regular season, good for an average of 17.4 yards per catch. He also caught 44.5 percent of the passes thrown his way, which is a percentage that needs to improve in 2013.
Bailey may be the better player, but Rodgers-Cromartie will be all over Smith from start to finish.
Rodgers-Cromartie is more athletic than Bailey and thrives in man coverage—something that would still be a well-known fact if the Philadelphia Eagles didn't butcher their world-class defensive backfield.
And don't think Smith is the only player in for a struggle.
Smith will be Flacco's top target this season, as he's the only wide receiver on the roster that has displayed any signs of being a genuine star. Until he proves capable of filling Boldin's shoes, however, there will be question marks.
Out-dueling Rodgers-Cromartie would be a great place to start.
Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs vs. Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin
The Ravens lost two of the greatest players in franchise history when Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed signed with the Houston Texans. While those two understandably garnered the lion's share of headlines, it's critical to note that Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger also signed elsewhere.
It's now on Elvis Dumervil, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs to save Baltimore's defense.
The key matchup for that group will be Dumervil and Suggs—Baltimore's outside linebackers—against Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin—Denver's offensive tackles.
Clady, Dumervil and Suggs are all decorated performers, while Franklin is a trusted starter in Denver.
Who will win the battle when they meet?
Dumervil played in 91 games with the Broncos, picking up 63.5 sacks in that time and 11.0 during the 2012 season. Suggs, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, has 84.5 career sacks, but managed just 2.0 in eight games last season.
It won't be easy for either man during Week 1.
Clady, a three-time All-Pro, will go toe-to-toe with Suggs and look to protect Manning's blind side all night. Franklin, a less proven commodity, will have the task of shutting down the player he faced in practice over the past two seasons.
If Denver is able to keep pressure off of Manning, the legend will pick Baltimore's defense apart. If Dumervil and Suggs are able to get into the backfield, however, they could disrupt Denver's rhythm.
Who's ready for a battle in the trenches?
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