ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos (10-3) travel to Baltimore in search of their ninth consecutive win. The Ravens (9-4), who have lost two straight, have a chance to clinch the AFC North with a victory. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. EST at M&T Bank Stadium in this pivotal AFC matchup with serious playoff implications.
Below is a preview of the game featuring important matchups on each side of the ball and a key to victory for Denver. For an in-depth look at some noteworthy facts and figures entering Sunday's game, read this week's What to Watch For.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Statistically, the Ravens defense isn't as daunting as it has been throughout the last decade. It ranks in the bottom half of the league in yards per game and rushing defense.
Still, it has surrendered just 21 points per game, thanks to the best red zone defense in the league and a turnover margin of 12.
"Being the top defense in the red zone tells you a lot about their team," quarterback said. "They tighten up when it really counts, and they're creating a lot of turnovers."
The defense is led by the usual cast, with a couple of new contributors.
Safety Ed Reed brings experience to the secondary in his 11th year in the league, and is still a magnet to the football. Since his rookie year in 2002, Reed has 61 interceptions -- 14 more than the next best total. He has three interceptions, 10 passes defensed, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown in 2012.
"Ed Reed is, in my opinion, the best safety in the NFL," Manning said. "Has been this past decade. You really kind of can go on and on. Tremendous ball skills, tremendous range, tremendous athlete based on what he does with the ball once he gets it in his hands. He is one of the smarter defensive players I've ever played against."
Baltimore's emerging performers on the defensive side of the ball include fourth-year linebacker Paul Kruger and third-year defensive end Arthur Jones. Kruger has 6.5 sacks in his last five games and at least one in each of those contests, which ties the Ravens' record for consecutive games with a sack. He started his fourth game of the year in Washington last week as his role in the defense continues to expand.
Jones, meanwhile, has recorded 4.5 sacks in the last three games. He trails only J.J. Watt of Houston and Mario Williams of Buffalo in sacks since Week 12.
Denver has done a good job protecting Manning in 2012, allowing just 19 sacks in 13 games. Kruger and Jones will test that as they carry sack-streaks into Week 15.
Two of Baltimore's perennial leaders in the middle of the defense remain question marks for Sunday's game.
Ray Lewis is eligible to return from injured reserve for the first game since he injured his triceps in Week 6. He was not on the injury report all week, but on Thursday was present at the early portion of practice open to the media, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs missed last week's game with a biceps injury. He was a full participant in Thursday and Friday's practices, and is listed as questionable. The Broncos players and coaches believe the Baltimore defense is strong with or without the two linebackers, but the presence of a leader like Lewis will certainly have an impact if he is able to play.
"His intensity and his passion, it's real," Manning said. "Some guys can turn it on in the big games. He always has it on. Every time I've played against him, which has been a bunch, I have great respect for the way he prepares for the game mentally. But his intensity and passion and spirit over there, it's real and it's contagious for his teammates, which is a great quality."
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Both the Ravens offense and Denver defense are in a unique situation as they prepare for the Week 15 clash. On Monday, Baltimore replaced former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with Jim Caldwell, who was previously the team's quarterbacks coach.
Caldwell, who spent 10 years coaching Manning in Indianapolis, has never been in charge of play-calling in his career. That means the Broncos have no game film on the Ravens new OC.
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard said Manning will do all he can to help the defense prepare, but he doesn't expect much to change in Baltimore's offense.
"I don't think it'll affect their play coming into Sunday," Woodyard said. "They're going to be ready regardless of who's out there. We've just got to know what offensive coordinator's going to be up, what they try to do and what they're expected to do against us."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said the same.
"Not much is going to change," Flacco said. "We're 13 games into the year and schematically and philosophy-wise, not really much can change about our offense so we just have to make sure we get more precise, and communicate and just clean up a couple things. We've had good spurts this year and we've got to make sure we do our best job, make sure that we have those on a consistent basis."
Running back Ray Rice is the focal point of the offense and is not only a threat carrying the ball, but will also test the Broncos' ability to cover a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Rice is 7 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards on the season and has caught 52 passes for 424 yards.
"He's probably one of the biggest threats coming out of the backfield, whether it's the passing game or running, because he does so much," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Flacco looks for him. Sometimes, guys just run up the field, it seems like it's a play to him, they're just throwing the shakedown and he'll go for 20 or 30 (yards). That's what he's been doing since he's been in the game."
Rice possesses unique abilities that make him difficult to contain for four quarters. Defensive tackle Justin Bannan spent four years in Baltimore, two with Rice. Bannan said Rice, at 5-foot-8, 212 pounds, is able to use his size to his advantage.
"Just his balance," Bannan said. "The guy can literally run full-speed, he can put his hand on the ground and still be going full speed. That's how low he can play. He's gifted. He's a great guy, and he plays hard. I've got a lot of respect for him, and he's a dynamic player." KEY TO THE GAME: The Strip-Sack
It's always important to pressure the opposing quarterback throughout the game. It helps the defense in numerous ways.
One element of Denver's pass rush that has been particularly crucial in 2012 has been strip-sacks, and when Flacco has been stripped this season, games have not gone well for Baltimore.
In all four of the Ravens losses, Flacco was strip-sacked. They are 8-0 in games that he has not been strip-sacked.
Defensive end Elvis Dumervil has six sack-fumbles on the year and linebacker Von Miller has four. If they can add to that total on Sunday, they will truly be the 'game-wreckers' that Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh called them.
Television: The game will be televised on KCNC-TV CBS 4, with Greg Gumbel (play-by-play) and Dan Dierdorf (color commentary) calling the game.
Local Radio: KOA (850 AM) will feature Dave Logan (play-by-play) and Ed McCaffrey (color commentary) with Alan Roach reporting from the sidelines.
Local Spanish Radio: KMXA (1090 AM) / KJMN (92.1 FM): Luis Canela (play-by-play) and Rafael Medina will call the game.
National Radio: Compass Media Networks: Chris Carrino (play-by-play) and Brian Baldinger (color commentary) will call the game.