The disintegration of the already tenuous relationship between Joe Flacco and the Baltimore fans has continued its downward trajectory along with the Ravens record after Baltimore’s 9-2 start gave way to a 1-4 finish. Nevermind Flacco’s 54-26 record in Baltimore or that since taking over as a rookie in 2008 he has become the only QB in history to lead his team to at least one post season victory in each of his first four seasons. It has gone virtually unmentioned the Flacco has improved in every single major statistical category from 2011 to 2012; as it’s the drop in wins from last season’s 12 to 10 that has the championship thirsty city on edge. His 309 yard 2 TD performance in Baltimore’s week 16 decimation of the Giants seemingly has gone unnoticed. Perceptions couldn’t have changed more dramatically than they have for Flacco who less than a calendar year ago executed a near perfect 2 minute drive in the AFC Championship only to have the NFL gods strike down and snatch victory at the last moment. Nonetheless, for the fifth time in Flacco’s five years—and second as division champion-the Ravens are heading to the playoffs.
For the opposing side, the Colts Andrew Luck has earned in 16 games a level of adulation from the city of Indianapolis seemingly reserved for the likes of only Peyton Manning. His 7 game winning drives are the most by an NFL QB since 1970 and no rookie in this stellar class has been asked to do more downfield with so little in the backfield (there is no Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson, or even Reggie Bush in the Colt lineup). Luck had dropped back nearly 650 times and only 4 QBs have been sacked more, nevertheless, Luck has nearly single-handedly resuscitated and transformed a team that was 2-14 just a year ago into an 11-5 contender.
In the 28 years that have elapsed since Robert Irsay drew the ire of the city of Baltimore by jetting for Indianapolis in a move that made economic sense and Jim Irsay drew equal ire from the city of Indianapolis by jettisoning Peyton Manning (another fiscally prudent move) much has changed. Manning brought a pair of AFC Titles and a Super Bowl to Indianapolis and Art Modell brought a team and title to Baltimore. As playoff opponents this marks the third meeting between the two franchises. The first two acts took place in Indianapolis and left much to be desired as Baltimore has managed only 12 points total. The most recent post season matchup with the two ended in a 20-3 Indy route in 2010 and marked Manning’s final victory in a Colt uniform.
The Keys for Indianapolis
Lining up for their 17th game, don’t expect wholesale differences for the Colt’s or any other team for that matter this late in the season (i.e. the Colts will not suddenly develop the ability to control the line of scrimmage or add a ground game to add balance to their attack). More than a touch of Luck will be required for the Colts to move on and they will need Luck to be every bit the quarterback that passed for more than 4,300 yards, was rivaled by only Flacco for most 20-plus yard completions, and posted 7 game winning drives.
The Colts will have their hands full handling Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs and the only hope to improve on the 104 yards per game they rushed for is if Anthony Castonzo can withstand Ngata’s pressure versus the run. Unfortunately for the Colts, RB Vick Ballard has only one carry of over 25 yards this season and Ngata spent week 17 re-charging his batteries. Factor in the return of Ray Lewis and it is likely the Colts will be at their one dimensional worst.
The Colts will have to do anything they can to factor in as many five-man routes as possible, giving Luck as many options as possible. His ability to get the ball deep has been a revelation considering the lack of a ground threat and while his tendency has been to go deep he will need check down options available. Luck’s ability to dissect the Ravens’ defense will be pertinent, and he has the perfect coaching scenario to help him identify those keys and giveaways. Chuck Pagano—prior to taking the Colts job—took a tour as defensive coordinator in Baltimore and knows their personal better than anyone.
The Colts 28-16 victory last week against Houston marked their first win over a winning team since early October and came despite being outgained by over 100 yards. Yet, Luck was able to do enough to exploit the secondary to notch the win in Pagano’s return. If Luck can continue his third down success that has masked the run deficiencies and the Colts utilize the other subtle qualities they bring into the game—namely returner Deji Karim’s recent explosiveness and Pagano’s knowledge of the opposition—they can find a way. It has been just that, the ability to find a way, which has positioned them at 11-5 despite being the only team in the post-season with a negative scoring differential.
Defensively the Colts will need to do what they can to limit Rice’s effectiveness between the tackles; if they can force him outside they can utilize what is perhaps their only asset against the run—their sideline to sideline speed. Like Luck, Joe Flacco has been victimized by a leaky offensive line. The Colts will hope to touch up Flacco and will need Vontae Davis to build on his two interception performance of last week and match up with speedster Torrey Smith.
The Keys for Baltimore
While defense has been the Baltimore calling and the names Suggs, Reed, Ngata, and Lewis still appear on the marquee a win for the Ravens will likely have to be attributed to the ability to exploit obvious weaknesses in the Colt defense. The Colts defense has allowed 137.5 rushing yards per game. While solid in pursuit, they fail to hold up well versus running backs that do damage between the tackles. Enter Ray Rice: the Ravens have won 23 of the 26 games when Rice has at least 25 carries. The Ravens will look to establish strong play by their tackles to allow Rice to control the pace of the game and effectively approach that 25 carry magic number.
In the passing game, the same group of tackles that will be key to springing Rice to a good game on the ground will have to do a better job than they have this year of protecting Flacco. When protected, Flacco can be accurate and effective and the Baltimore offense more than efficient. The Ravens thrashed the Giants for 533 yards in week 16 and, despite all the late season offensive turmoil, have averaged nearly 32 points per game at home. Baltimore has their own man from the other side in Jim Caldwell who manned the Colts sideline in both a tight Super Bowl loss and last season’s 2-14 debacle. Caldwell has spent the last month calling the plays for Baltimore and though results have been mixed he does have knowledge of Colt personnel.
There is not enough that the Colts can do to gain effectiveness against a Raven’s defense that will look to feed off of the emotional return to the lineup of Ray Lewis. While the Baltimore defense has lost a step or five they still hold enough advantages to boil things down to one focus: the ability of Ed Reed and the secondary to ground the third down passing attack that has been at the crux of Luck’s ability to bail out the Colts offense all season long.
The Pagano story has rightfully captured the hearts of NFL fans everywhere and has made the Colts a post season rooting favorite for fans that don’t have a horse in this race otherwise. If the sentiment of Ray Lewis potentially playing his last game at home can be trumped then it is Pagano’s remarkable return to the sideline after battling leukemia that has deserving done so. Though the luster seems to have faded from Baltimore many weeks ago it will be quite a challenge for the Colts to do what no team has done in the Flacco era and the Ravens to a winless post season.
Is Luck enough to lead a team that takes the field with 28 men playing their first postseason game? Baltimore is better on defensive and their running game foils the Colts direct weakness against the run. Furthermore, Jacoby Jones and the elite return game has the potential to exploit Indianapolis’ struggling coverage unit. This will be Ray Lewis’ last home game, but it won’t be his last game. The Ravens have too many advantages and they are at home. This week being pretty good is better than having ‘Luck’ on one’s side.
Baltimore 30 – Indianapolis 21