The Baltimore Ravens head to Indianapolis this weekend with a chance to knock off the No. 1 AFC seed Colts. They enter Indy with a swagger, having torn up the Patriots in New England last week, 33-14. Meanwhile, the Colts haven't won a game since December 17, but racked up 14 of them through that date.
The two teams did square off earlier in the season, with the Colts winning 17-15 in Baltimore in late November. There were some items of interest coming from that game. First of all, the Colts kept the Ravens out of the end zone. Peyton Manning connected on 22-of-31 passes for 299 yards, but he also threw two interceptions. The Ravens didn't run the ball as many times as they passed it, but Ray Rice and Derrick Mason had their way with the Colts through the air. The Ravens had a chance to win the game, but Gary Brackett's interception of Joe Flacco thwarted the Ravens' final drive. Of course, the Colts also missed an opportunity earlier in the game when Tom Santi fumbled on the Ravens 4.
This time around, the Ravens are likely to run the ball much more than they passed, but the Colts get the comfort of playing entirely healthy and within the confines of Lucas Oil Stadium. Oh, and don't bet on Manning looking for Santi over Dallas Clark in the red zone.
1. Can the Colts force the Ravens to throw? Flacco had a miserable 10.0 quarterback rating last week against a New England pass defense that is similar to the Colts. They also shredded the Pats -- who have a much better run defense than Indy -- on the ground.
2. Can the Ravens defense avoid the big play and force the Colts to dink-and-dunk? The Ravens have a solid defense, but their biggest weakness is playing one-on-one pass defense. Manning can easily exploit single-teams with any of his wideouts.
3. Will momentum and/or rest be a factor? The Ravens come off a great win last week while the Colts are healthy and rested after having not played a full game in nearly a month.
Player in the Spotlight: Peyton Manning is 0-3 in his career when his team is coming off a first round bye in the playoffs. He didn't play poorly in the latter two, but his name is attached to the era for a reason. He is astute enough to know this and is very cognizant of the fact that his legacy is on the line here. You can bet his preparation for the game will be better than anyone else on the field, but that's often the case. This time, the results need to support the work he's put in.
Baltimore's Path to Victory: Run, run, run and run some more. Joe Flacco is banged up and will be constantly under duress in the pocket as Dwight Freeney abuses the equally banged up Jared Gaither. As the Ravens are forced to double there, holes will open up elsewhere for the Colts. They are not near as bad against the run as they used to be, but you can still run on Indy. If the Ravens can get Rice to the second level, he's capable of more than one big play.
Defensively, the Ravens need to come up with some new material. You can bet offensive coordinator Tom Moore and Manning have already dissected the game film from last time the two teams faced each other and from the Ravens' win against New England last week and found ways they can exploit the defense. The Ravens also need to bring packages where they don't set themselves on defense, for we all know Manning is the master of at-the-line changes. Occasional blitzing of Manning would be good, but the Ravens must brilliantly disguise it, otherwise Manning will easily find the single coverage and make them pay.
Indianapolis' Path to Victory: The Colts need to stack the box and make a banged-up Flacco beat them. He couldn't do it during the regular season at home and now the Colts are healthier and more prepared. The Colts will have serious trouble with the Ravens' run attack unless they play all game with at least eight (and they probably need nine) guys in the box.
Offensively, the Colts need to be aware of the unknown. Manning was baited into two interceptions last time around and Santi was blindsided on his fumble. The last time the Colts were the No. 1 seed, they were killed at home by not being able to adjust to the Steelers' blitzing schemes. Basically, if the Colts win the mental game when they have the football, they will win the physical one as well.
Prediction: There's just been too much diving off the Colts' bandwagon since their Week 16 loss to the Jets for my taste. Don't doubt what the motivation the last three weeks of hearing how they threw their season away by not going undefeated can provide a veteran cast like this -- especially when they know their ultimate legacy will be defined by Super Bowl rings and they trail the Patriots and Steelers in this era. They would already be motivated enough to get rid of the no-wins-after-a-playoff-bye talk. The Colts are more mature and determined than ever, and on top of that, a 14-2 team gets to play the "no one thought we could win" card? Indy jumps out to a big lead in the first half and cruises. Colts 38, Ravens 17