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Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos: Five "X-Factors"

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The NFL kicks off the 2013 season for real on Thursday, Sept. 5 when the defending Super Bowl Champions Baltimore Ravens travel to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to take on the Denver Broncos. The storylines in this game are plentiful: the rematch of last year's epic Divisional Playoff game, the "fax-gate" that allowed OLB Elvis Dumervil to sign with Baltimore, and the addition of WR Wes Welker to an already potent Denver offense.

Although the Broncos are seven-point favorites (the largest margin against a defending Super Bowl Champion in Week 1), expect the game to be much tighter. The Ravens have gotten younger and faster on the defensive side of the ball. While replacing WR Anquan Boldin (traded to 49ers) and TE Dennis Pitta (hip dislocation, IR) will be a challenge, the Ravens are confident in QB Joe Flacco's ability to lead the team. The Broncos arguably have the best offense in the NFL, lead by QB Peyton Manning and his cast of decorated receivers (Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker). This group of receivers is explosive, but keep an eye out for TE Julius Thomas, an up-and-coming tight end. The defense for the Broncos is missing key players CB Champ Bailey (foot) and OLB Von Miller (six-game suspension), and will rely on home-field advantage to make the Ravens uncomfortable.

We will take a look at the five biggest "X-Factors" in tonight’s season opening game:

5) CB Corey Graham, Ravens

Graham isn’t a big name in the NFL, but that could change tonight. Graham is likely to be matched up against Wes Welker in the slot. Graham was a pleasant surprise last year for the Ravens and took over for Jimmy Smith halfway through the season. Look for the Broncos to exploit this matchup early and often. However, if Graham can hold his own – which he proved he could last year – look for Manning to be rushed out of the pocket and force some passes in the middle of the field. It should be noted that Graham is very familiar with Manning, In their playoff meeting a year ago, Graham intercepted Manning – which set up K Justin Tucker’s 47-yard game-winning field goal.

4) DE Derek Wolfe, Broncos

Wolfe is in his second NFL season and will be asked to do a lot. The Broncos had 52 sacks a season ago and 29.5 of them came from Dumervil and Von Miller. Unfortunately for Denver, Dumervil now plays for the Ravens and Von Miller is suspended the first six games of the season. Wolfe was third on the team in sacks with six last season, but will be relied on even more this year. If the Broncos allow Flacco time to sit in the pocket and pick apart a depleted secondary, it could be a long night for Denver fans. Look for Wolfe to try and get after the quarterback in every passing situation. If the Ravens decide to leave him one-on-one, look for Wolfe to make some big plays.

3) DT Haloti Ngata, Ravens

After playing through injuries last season, Ngata is healthy and ready to go for the Ravens in 2013. This could be bad news for the Broncos who are starting third-string center Manny Ramirez, after injuries to J.D Walton and Dan Koppen. If Ngata can generate pressure up the middle and force Manning into quick, untimely throws, the Ravens could have a big advantage. Ngata is known for his run-stuffing abilities and eating up multiple blockers at the line of scrimmage. This makes new middle LB Daryl Smith’s job much easier. Ngata will have one of those games to remind you why he is one of – if not the – best defensive tackles in the NFL.

2) WR Eric Decker, Broncos

There is only one football to be passed around in Denver. With the addition of Welker to the equation, that means fewer balls for Decker and Thomas.  In Denver’s pass-happy offense, however, Decker will still get his share. He won’t put up numbers like he did a season ago (1,064 yards, 13 touchdowns) but getting the Ravens’ third corner will be a mismatch that Manning will take advantage of. Look for Decker to have a huge impact on tonight’s game, especially if the Ravens line up Jimmy Smith opposite him.

1) QB Joe Flacco, Ravens

No surprise here. After signing a mega-contract (six years, $120 million) Flacco is now the leader of the Ravens. Baltimore will ask more of Flacco this year than all of his other years combined. Everyone is curious to see how Flacco responds to the media attention, and if he can continue that magical playoff run from a season ago where he posted an 11:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. With Boldin and Pitta gone, Flacco has a tall task at hand. Look for him to utilize Ray Rice out of the backfield and take plenty of shots downfield to WRs Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones on first and second down. Flacco is ready to prove that he is one of the NFL’s elite and will have a strong game tonight to silence his critics once and for all.