For Colts, Practice Better Than Perfect
That's how long it had been since the Indianapolis Colts had gone full-bore and all out to win a football game.
Or had you heard?
"Yeah," offensive lineman Ryan Lilja said. "That stuff got a lot of ink the last couple weeks."
The Colts may have mailed in their shot at immortality by taking a dive in the second half of their Week 16 home game with the New York Jets, but Peyton Manning and friends weren't exactly kicking back and soaking in hot tubs while resting up for their AFC Divisional showdown against the Baltimore Ravens.
Actually, they were practicing harder and like never before.
In a break from their past routine, first-year Indianapolis Coach Jim Caldwell chose to shake up the usual bye week playoff regimen that had proven ineffective in some disappointing first-round losses over the years.
Last week, the Colts that rested were the practice squad guys, the ones normally called on to mimic the potential opponent.
"In years past, we have tried to kind of guess who we were going to play," Manning explained Saturday night after the Colts whipped the Ravens 20-3 to advance to next week's AFC Championship Game against either the Jets or San Diego Chargers. "For instance, we would work Jets one day, Baltimore one day, Cincinnati one. [Last] week, we just worked Colts against Colts. Starters versus starters. That's something you really don't do a lot of during the season."
It was Manning staring down Antoine Bethea. Ryan Diem butting heads with Robert Mathis. Dallas Clark against Gary Brackett.
"It was good, kind of competitive, enthusiastic and spirited practices," Manning said. "It made both sides of the ball better. We really worked on things. Our offense won some matchups. [Defense] won some matchups. It really paid off for us."
No, the action wasn't live, but it was every bit as fast. And it helped the AFC's best team get back whatever edge it lost in pulling back those final two weeks of the regular season -- both losses that could have drained momentum heading into the playoffs.
"Because of the fact we were off so long, oftentimes, what you lose is game speed," Caldwell said. "The 'look' teams or 'service' teams are looking at cards, and you don't get quite the speed because they don't know that particular offense or defense. When you work 1s versus 1s, they really know the game speed. You don't get the live hitting -- though we did have the pads on one day -- but the speed of the game is still in their minds because of that exercise."
That speed flashed against the Ravens on both sides of the ball. The Colts' efficient passing game sustained two second-quarter drives of 75 and 64 yards to build a 17-3 lead at halftime and took the more-methodical Ravens out of their game. On defense, the Colts swarmed Ray Rice and the Baltimore running game, limiting it to just 87 yards, and forced four turnovers, including two interceptions by Joe Flacco.
"They definitely move around pretty good," Ravens rookie offensive tackle Michael Oher said. "They just made more plays than we did."
Baltimore came into the game having gashed its previous two opponents -- Oakland in the season finale and New England in the wild-card round -- for 474 combined rushing yards and looked to have a sizable edge in facing an Indianapolis defense ranked in the bottom third of the league against the run.
But those 126.5 yards per game the Colts surrendered got a little skewed late in the season, given the pull-back tactics taken in the final two games, when the Jets amassed 202 yards on the ground, followed by 248 surrendered in a loss at Buffalo.
But a handful of those so-called "look" guys were on the field for those two games.
Look at what it all meant.
"People kept telling us how we can't stop the run," Brackett said. "That's one of the great things about football; you get to define yourself."
A key step toward defining themselves was playing themselves.
"What better way to keep us upbeat and from being sluggish than playing a team like ourselves?" Raheem Brock said. "We went out there excited and flying around. We were ready."