LOS ANGELES: Peyton Manning’s comeback trail meets Ray Lewis’s farewell tour today when Manning’s Denver Broncos host the Baltimore Ravens in the second round of the NFL playoffs.
Manning, a four-time NFL Most Valuable Player who missed all of the 2011 season after multiple neck surgeries, rewarded the faith of his new team in Denver with a stellar campaign that included 4,659 passing yards and 37 touchdown passes.
With the 36-year-old veteran quarterback at the helm the Broncos won their last 11 regular-season games to grab the top seed and home field advantage in the American Conference.
After enjoying a bye they’ll try to fend off a Ravens side energized in the first round by the return from injury of defensive star Lewis, who says this playoff push will be his last before he departs the NFL whenever Baltimore’s season ends.
“It’s just two people who understand the game very well, and offensively, he understands what things he wants to see, and defensively, we understand what things we don’t want him to see,” Lewis said of taking on his old foe Manning.
“That’s where the chess match comes in. You give him what he wants? He beats you. You give him what he doesn’t want? Then you beat him.” The Ravens booked their second-round ticket with a 24-9 victory over Indianapolis last weekend.
Quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns in that contest, but it was the return of 17-year veteran Lewis, for his first game since he suffered a torn triceps in mid-October, that added a real spark for the Ravens, especially after his announcement days before the game that this would be his last NFL season.
The Broncos beat the Ravens 34-17 in a regular-season contest in December, and Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin said the teams are keen to avenge that defeat and move a step closer to a Super Bowl berth.
“I was hoping we’d get Denver again,” Boldin said. “This time we’ll make it different.” Sunday’s AFC game pits Houston against the Patriots at New England, while in the National Conference San Francisco host Green Bay on Saturday and the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons host Seattle on Sunday.
The Patriots, led by superstar quarterback Tom Brady, will be well-rested after a first-round bye and seeking to repeat their 42-14 rout of the Texans late in the regular season.
That defeat was part of a late-campaign collapse by Houston that saw the Texans drop out of first place in the conference. They beat Cincinnati in the first round last weekend to advance.
“It was meaningful for our whole team what we’re trying to accomplish,” Brady said of the regular-season win over the Texans. “You don’t take these things for granted. It’s a privilege to be in this position and to be one of the teams to have played well enough over the course of the year to deserve the first-round bye.” The Falcons earned their first-round bye thanks to some spectacular play from quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for a team-record 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns in the regular season.
But Ryan is 0-3 in previous playoff starts over the past four years, a run of futility he insists he has every chance of halting.
“I’m confident in the guys around us,” Ryan said. “We’ve proven we can go out there and be successful. You have to buy into that. You have to believe that.” The Seahawks rallied from a 14-0 deficit to beat the Washington Redskins in the first round.
The victory was a confidence-builder for rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, but also saw Seattle lose defensive standout Chris Clemons to a torn knee ligament.
In San Francisco, the 49ers will be seeking a second straight NFC Championship Game berth when they host the Packers.
San Francisco opened this season with a week-one victory over the Pack at Lambeau Field that ended Green Bay’s 13-game regular-season home winning streak.
Since then, Colin Kaepernick has taken over from Alex Smith as San Francisco’s starting quarterback.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said both teams have evolved since their season-opener.
“We’re a different football team,” said Rodgers, who led the Packers to a 24-10 first-round victory over Minnesota.