The Ravens meet the Indianapolis Colts in the postseason for the third time ever on Sunday and will be looking for their first playoff triumph over the franchise that used to play in Baltimore.
Of course, the Colts no longer enjoy the services of Peyton Manning for this playoff matchup as the future Hall of Fame quarterback broke Baltimore’s heart to end its 2006 and 2009 seasons. Indianapolis has begun a new era this year with rookie head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano providing the inspiration in beating leukemia as the Colts made the playoffs with a rookie quarterback and an 11-5 record after last season’s 2-14 disaster.
The Ravens already had plenty of incentive in advancing to their fifth postseason in five years under coach John Harbaugh, but Wednesday’s announcement that future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis intends to retire after the season almost made the game an afterthought in the buildup this week. It figures to be a scene unlike any other in the history of Baltimore sports as Lewis walks out of the tunnel to not only play in his first game since Week 6 but also perform his decorated pre-game dance for the final time.
Indianapolis leads the all-time regular-season series with a 7-3 record and owns a 2-0 mark over the Ravens in the postseason while Baltimore looks to improve on its NFL-best mark of winning at least one playoff game in each of the last four seasons. The Ravens are the only team in the league to advance to the postseason in each of the last five years.
Here’s what to expect as the AFC North champion Ravens attempt to exorcise some demons against Indianapolis at M&T Bank Stadium …
1. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce will combine for 170 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Indianapolis has played abysmal run defense this season and allows an average of 5.1 yards per carry, good for 31st in the league. This was on full display in Week 16 when the Colts allowed 345 rushing yards in a win over Kansas City. The Colts do not have a good front seven as its defensive line and veterans Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have struggled mightily in adjusting to Pagano’s 3-4 defensive scheme. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will offer a heavy dose of Rice and the rookie Pierce to open up the middle of the field as Indianapolis tries to put eight men in the box early in the game. The Ravens will use a similar formula to the one used against the New York Giants in Week 16 when they rushed for 224 yards on 45 carries to wear down the New York front. A similar plan would keep the Indianapolis offense off the field and tire out a vulnerable, underwhelming defense.
2. Showing impressive poise in his first playoff game, Andrew Luck will have a respectable day and connect with T.Y. Hilton for a long touchdown pass. The No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft has lived up to expectations in his rookie season, throwing for 4,374 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions while orchestrating seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most by an NFL rookie quarterback since the 1970 merger. Luck has even cut down on the interceptions by not throwing one in the final three games of the regular season, with two of those games coming against a formidable Houston defense. The speedy Hilton led all rookie receivers in 100-yard receiving games and touchdown receptions while finishing second among rookies with 861 receiving yards. With plenty of attention being paid to the timeless veteran Reggie Wayne, Hilton will get behind an improving but inconsistent secondary to catch a deep ball from Luck for a touchdown.
3. Ed Reed will put his stamp on the game with an interception in what could be his final appearance as a Raven in Baltimore. The 37-year-old Lewis will receive most of the attention Sunday — and rightfully so — but the writing appears to be on the wall for the 34-year-old Reed, who hasn’t engaged in any contract talks with the organization since before the 2011 season. Reed declined commenting on his intentions after the season, saying he wasn’t “in that mindset” now, so you know the Pro Bowl safety will be looking to bait a rookie quarterback into making a mistake. Reed has appeared to guess recklessly instead of taking calculated gambles more often than not this season, but the future Hall of Fame defensive back always seems to rise to the occasion in the biggest games. Last year, Reed had an interception and broke up six passes in two postseason games. It may not be a highlight interception return for a touchdown, but Reed will pick off Luck to give Ravens fans a potential final thrill.
4. An effective running game will allow Joe Flacco to thrive using play-action as Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin have strong days against the Indianapolis pass defense. It goes without saying how big this postseason will be for the fifth-year quarterback as his rookie contract is set to expire and he plays his first playoff game without former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The Colts defense hasn’t been as bad against the pass (21st in the NFL) as it’s been against the run, but Indianapolis will be susceptible to play action as the Ravens run the ball extensively. Inside linebackers Kavell Conner and Jerrell Freeman are not particularly good in pass coverage, meaning Pitta and Boldin could have a field day over the middle, intermediate portion. It doesn’t need to be a 300-yard passing day by Flacco for the Ravens to win, but the Baltimore quarterback will be efficient and take some shots vertically against cornerbacks Cassius Vaughn and Vontae Davis to keep Indianapolis honest in trying to defend the run. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 225 passing yards and a touchdown should be plenty against the Colts.
5. With a returning Lewis playing in his final game in Baltimore, the Ravens will have the higher energy level to beat Indianapolis in a 27-17 final. When the 37-year-old linebacker made his announcement on Wednesday, the Ravens regained the emotional edge previously enjoyed by the underdog Colts, who played so admirably with their head coach battling cancer. I’m not envisioning Lewis making much of an impact physically, but the Ravens are the better team in this one despite failing to show it in the month of December, losing three of four before the Week 17 loss that amounted to little more than a preseason game. The Baltimore offense struggled at home against Pittsburgh and Denver in December, but those units finished first and second in yards allowed this season. This Colts defense is a far cry from those defense and the Ravens will have a very productive day playing in their home stadium. The energy level at M&T Bank Stadium may be unlike any we’ve ever seen in what’s already regarded as one of the toughest places to play in the NFL. That wave will give the Ravens an extra boost to dispose of the Colts in a fairly comfortable fashion. All other factors aside, the Ravens just aren’t losing in Lewis’ final game in Baltimore. The football gods simply won’t allow it.