The Denver Broncos have waited almost eight months for their chance to avenge last season's dramatic divisional playoff loss to a Baltimore Ravens team that appears ready for the challenge.
Minus some familiar faces, the Super Bowl champion Ravens kick off the 2013 season Thursday night against the host Broncos, who hope to achieve the goal they fell short of a year ago.
Riding an 11-game winning streak and ahead by seven late in the fourth quarter, Denver appeared headed to the AFC championship game until safety Rahim Moore blew coverage and Baltimore's Joe Flacco connected with Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left, forcing overtime and stunning the Broncos. The Ravens went on to a 38-35 double-OT victory that propelled them to a 28-13 win at New England the next week, and they went on to beat San Francisco 34-31 to claim their first Super Bowl title since 2000.
"I've got a pretty good feeling that the Broncos fans are going to make us remember (and) think about everything that they want to," coach John Harbaugh told the Ravens' official website.
"We know the environment we're going into. It will be the same environment, or even tougher, than the one that we faced in January. And we're excited about that."
For the Broncos, it's a chance to resolve the past while providing a potential springboard for a promising season.
"It's not about me. It's about the team,' Moore said. "We all suffered. But the good thing about it is it's a whole new year. Nobody remembers what you did last year.'
Breaking a decade-long tradition of the Super Bowl champs opening the next season at home, Baltimore is playing on the road because the Orioles will be hosting the Chicago White Sox next door to M&T Stadium on Thursday. The teams share parking lots and a solution for both to play at home could not be reached.
In a marketing move to promote and celebrate the contest, the NFL installed a banner of Flacco along with one of Denver QB Peyton Manning outside Sports Authority Field. That, along with several lamp-post flags of Flacco throughout downtown Denver, didn't sit well with Broncos fans after he threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns - along with the long TD to Jones - in the playoff win.
The situation would have been avoided had the NFL and Major League Baseball been able to resolve the scheduling conflict.
"I can't imagine that people in our city would be too happy if somebody from another team was hanging on our stadium,' Flacco said. "(But) I didn't have anything to do with it.'
Looking to become the first team to repeat as Super Bowl champs since New England in 2004, Baltimore will be without some key contributors from last year, including two longtime pillars of the team's vaunted defense.
Future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis retired after 17 seasons and safety Ed Reed signed with Houston. Gone as well are leading tacklers Bernard Pollard and Dannell Ellerbe and fellow defensive starters Paul Kruger and Cary Williams.
However, linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerback Lardarius Webb are healthy, and former Bronco Elvis Dumervil will try to bring down Manning instead of cheering him on.
The Pro Bowl linebacker agreed to a restructured contract with Denver, but the paperwork wasn't filed with the league office in time and the team was forced to release him. Dumervil, who combined with Von Miller for 29 1/2 of Denver's league-best 52 sacks last season, signed with Baltimore in March.
"I feel amazing,' said Dumervil, who has recorded 63 1/2 sacks in six seasons. "As of right now, I'm a Raven, and I feel great about that.'
Though last season's leading receiver Anquan Boldin is in San Francisco and tight end Dennis Pitta is out indefinitely with a fractured hip, Ray Rice remains in the backfield for the Ravens.
Rice's 1,143 rushing yards were his fewest since his 2008 rookie season, but he led the team with 10 total touchdowns and tied for second with 61 receptions. Rice's 7,505 yards from scrimmage since the start of the 2009 season are the most in the NFL.
He rushed for 131 yards and a TD on 30 carries in the playoff victory over Denver.
Flacco will be looking to live up to the six-year, $120.6 million contract he signed after throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs. Including postseason, he's thrown for 956 yards with six TDs and one pick while going 3-1 against the Broncos.
He'll face a Denver team that ranked second in the NFL in total defense at 290.8 yards per game and fourth in scoring defense at 18.1 points. However, star linebacker Von Miller is suspended for the first six games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, while cornerback Champ Bailey's is out due to a sprained left foot. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will start in Bailey's place.
Harbaugh still isn't taking the unit lightly.
"The Broncos are still the Broncos and they're going to put 11 excellent players on the field and they're going to put pass rushers out there who can rush,' he said.
Denver's ultimate fortunes hinge on the right arm of the 37-year-old Manning.
After missing the 2011 season to recover from neck surgery, Manning threw 37 TDs and recorded a 105.8 passer rating in his first year in Denver.
He passed for 290 yards and three TDs against Baltimore in the playoffs, but was intercepted twice and sacked three times.
Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker combined to catch 23 touchdowns from Manning. Also in the mix is veteran Wes Welker, whose 672 receptions since the start of 2007 are the most in the NFL during that span.
Welker signed with the Broncos in the offseason after six years in New England.
Rookie Montee Ball, the NCAA FBS leader with 83 career touchdowns, joins Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman in a Denver backfield that for the time being will be by committee.
"I think as a team, this is our year,' Moore said. "I think we're going to do some big things. It's not going to be easy. Not at all. We have to remain the hunters.
"But we do have a chip on our shoulders, too.'
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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