NFL Preview - Indianapolis (9-0) at Baltimore (5-4)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Other than the Indianapolis Colts themselves, the group of people happiest about the Colts' near-miracle comeback against the New England Patriots last Sunday night had to be the Baltimore Ravens.
The Colts, who will put their 18-game regular season winning streak on the line against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, would have been difficult enough for Baltimore to beat without having to play them after a frustrating loss.
In a result that has had its final moments dissected six ways from Sunday in the past week, the Colts rallied from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to defeat the New England Patriots, 35-34, and move to 9-0 last week.
The Colts had looked dead to rights a couple of times before Bill Belichick's fateful choice to go for it on 4th-and-2 at his own 28, as Indy fell behind 24-7 in the second quarter and was left clinging to the ropes for support when Randy Moss' second touchdown of the night put them in a 31-14 hole with 14:18 to play in the fourth quarter.
At that stage, Indianapolis had neither moved the football consistently on the New England defense, nor done enough to slow a Patriots offense that had scored on five of its first 10 drives.
But a sea change was imminent, long before the 4th-and-2 play heard 'round the world. Peyton Manning would lead a pair of touchdown drives that would keep the Colts within striking distance, and the Indianapolis defense picked the appropriate time to tighten up, holding New England to a total of three points on its next two drives and not allowing what could have been a game-deflating Manning interception to end the comeback attempt.
Ultimately, after Manning punished Belichick for his questionable decision by throwing a 1-yard slant to Reggie Wayne for the game-winning touchdown, the Colts would complete that comeback attempt.
The Ravens' Week 10 result was not nearly as thrilling - quite the opposite, actually - but Baltimore's visually unappealing 16-0 win at Cleveland on Monday night was arguably more important to the team than was the Colts' victory the night before.
The win kept Baltimore, which closed out a frustrating 1-4 stretch of football with a 17-7 loss at the Bengals in Week 9, in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race.
The Ravens broke a scoreless tie early in the third quarter on a 13-yard Ray Rice touchdown run, then made the score an insurmountable 13-0 just seconds later when Dawan Landry intercepted a tipped Brady Quinn pass and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown.
The Baltimore defense held hapless Cleveland to just 160 yards on the night.
The win was not without its negatives however, as a missed field goal and blocked extra point earned kicker Steve Hauschka his walking papers.
The inconsistent Hauschka was released on Tuesday and replaced the next day by journeyman Billy Cundiff, who kicked in five games as a member of the Browns earlier this season.
Cundiff's counterpart on Sunday will be none other than Colts kicker Matt Stover, the Ravens' all-time leading scorer and a member of the team for 13 seasons (1996-2008), who will face his former team for the first time after Baltimore declined to re-sign the 41-year-old veteran in the offseason.
The Colts have a 6-2 edge in their all-time regular season series with the Ravens, including five straight victories. Indianapolis handed Baltimore a 31-3 setback at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 6 of last season, and were 44-20 victors when they last visited M&T Bank Stadium in 2007. Baltimore's last win in the series came in 2001 at home.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with Indy scoring a 15-6 road win in a 2006 AFC Divisional Playoff en route to a Super Bowl title.
Including playoffs, the Ravens are 0-6 against the Colts since last beating them in 2001, including 0-3 in Baltimore.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is 0-1 in his career against the Colts, while Indy's Jim Caldwell will be meeting both Harbaugh and Baltimore for the first time as a head coach.
The Colts franchise called Baltimore home from 1953 through the 1983 season.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
The NFL's MVP through 10 weeks has to be Manning, who enters Week 11 leading the league in passing yards (2872) and touchdown passes (20) for a Colts offense that is first in NFL passing offense (315.1 yards per game), completion percentage (69.6), third-down percentage (50.0) and total touchdown passes (21). Manning (7 INT) has gone over 300 yards in eight of nine starts this season and is on pace for 5,106 yards, which would set a single-season league record. Manning's top target has been Wayne, who leads the league in receptions (69) and is tied for the NFL lead in touchdown catches (8) after his 10-catch, 126-yard, two-touchdown night against the Patriots. Rookie Austin Collie (38 receptions, 4 TD) also chipped in with six grabs totaling 45 yards in the win, but both he and fellow youngster Pierre Garcon (26 receptions, 3 TD) dropped key passes. Along with Wayne, Indy tight end Dallas Clark (64 receptions, 3 TD) also ranks among the league's receptions leader and comes off a four-catch, 65- yard night. The Indy running game has taken a back seat given Manning's exploits, though both Joseph Addai (440 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 9 TD) and rookie Donald Brown (226 rushing yards, 2 TD) have added value at various times this season. Addai scored on both the ground and through the air against the Patriots. Manning has been sacked just eight times all year.
The Ravens defense enters Week 11 in a depleted state, which is certainly no way to go into a matchup with Manning and the Colts. Pass rusher Terrell Suggs (knee) is expected to be absent after being injured in Monday night's win over the Browns on a questionable hit by quarterback Brady Quinn, and space-eating defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (ankle) is considered questionable after missing the team's last two games. With Suggs out, the near-impossible task of pressuring Manning will fall to Jarret Johnson (31 tackles, 6 sacks) and rookie Paul Kruger, who will be trying to assist Baltimore's beleaguered secondary any way they can. Cornerbacks Fabian Washington (32 tackles), Domonique Foxworth (23 tackles, 1 INT), and Chris Carr (19 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack) will have to prove they can handle the Colts receivers, with safeties Ed Reed (38 tackles, 2 INT) and Dawan Landry (48 tackles, 3 INT) lending a great deal of assistance. Landry shook off a quiet 2009 to date by making arguably the biggest play of the Cleveland game, intercepting a Brady Quinn pass and returning it 48 yards for a touchdown. The strength of the Baltimore defense remains the run defense, with inside linebacker Ray Lewis (75 tackles, 2 sacks) active against opposing rushers as usual, and veteran Kelly Gregg (35 tackles) doing a good job from his DT position. The Ravens are fifth in the league against the run (93.9 yards per game) as Week 11 begins.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Baltimore offense is led by promising second-year QB Joe Flacco (2199 passing yards, 12 TD, 7 INT), the Ravens may go to a run-heavy approach on Sunday in order to keep Manning and the Colts offense off the field. That spells a heavy dose of running back Ray Rice (662 rushing yards, 49 receptions, 7 TD), who has had a terrific season to date and has been a threat in both the rushing and receiving games. Also figuring to see extensive touches against Indy are backup Willis McGahee (236 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 7 TD) and fullback Le'Ron McClain (88 rushing yards, 1 TD, 17 receptions), both of whom were a major part of the gameplan against Cleveland. McGahee carried 13 times for a disappointing 35 yards in the victory, while McClain made his six touches count for 29 yards. When Flacco throws it, wideouts Derrick Mason (36 receptions, 4 TD) and Mark Clayton (24 receptions, 2 TD) will be among the primary targets, along with tight end Todd Heap (34 receptions, 2 TD), who is battling a chest injury but is expected to play. Heap had a team-high four catches totaling 43 yards against the Browns, while Mason made his three grabs hold up for a game-high 78 yards. For his part, Flacco will be trying to shake off a poor performance against the Colts in Week 6 of last season, when he threw three interceptions and was sacked four times in a 31-3 blowout.
Even after being tested throughout the night by the high-octane Patriots attack, an underrated Colts defense continues to rank first in the league in points allowed (15.8 per game) and fewest touchdowns surrendered (14). A key to that effort has been the work of the pass rush, with Dwight Freeney (19 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (34 tackles, 8.5 sacks) having a strong year and helping to bail out a young secondary featuring rookie corners Jerraud Powers (45 tackles, 1 INT) and Jacob Lacey (42 tackles, 1 INT). Mathis had two sacks of Tom Brady and a forced fumble last Sunday night, while Powers and Lacey combined for 12 tackles and three pass breakups. Safety Antoine Bethea (64 tackles, 3 INT) came up with the only interception of Brady on the night. In all probability, however, a Colts run defense that ranks 14th in the league (108.7 yards per game) will face the biggest test against the Ravens on Sunday. Linebackers Gary Brackett (48 tackles) and Clint Session (65 tackles, 1 INT) - who combined for 20 tackles against the Patriots - will have to be fundamentally sound, and the young defensive tackle combo of Daniel Muir (20 tackles) and Antonio Johnson (18 tackles, 1 sack) will have to be on its game as well.
Manning's MVP-caliber season has also made him a fantasy owner's dream, and his proficiency has also paid off for owners of Wayne, Clark, and even Collie and Garcon. Against a shaky Ravens defense that has struggled in the secondary all year and is missing its top pass rusher, don't hesitate to play any and all of the above. Running backs Addai and Brown have been disappointing from a yardage standpoint and would probably belong on the bench normally, though the fact that Addai has accounted for nine touchdowns (5 rushing, 3 receiving, 1 passing) over his last seven games makes it hard to take him out of the lineup. The Colts defense probably isn't a great play here, but kicker Matt Stover, who will be looking to stick it to his old team and still has the leg to do it, certainly is.
Flacco was a bona fide fantasy starter a few weeks ago, but has three straight sub-200-yard performances, with just one touchdown and two interceptions over that span, so he's now a questionable play at best. His top receiving outlets, Mason and Heap, fall into the same boat. The Ravens' most reliable fantasy starter is undoubtedly Rice, who has scored in five straight games and is always a candidate to break the big one. Don't touch the Baltimore defense with a 10-foot pole here, and probably best to wait and see on Cundiff as well.
The Ravens need this one badly, as they can't afford to fall another game back of the Bengals (at the 2-7 Raiders) and especially the Steelers (at the 2-7 Chiefs) as they look to remain a part of the postseason picture. But needing the game and matching up with Peyton Manning are two different things, and the Ravens match up with Manning and the Indy passing attack as poorly as they ever have. Baltimore will play hard, and may even get the Colts off the field more often than teams usually do, but it's just a matter of time until the Ravens get burned for a big play or several. On the other side of the ball, Baltimore should have some success, but the notion of Flacco matching Manning score-for- score seems like a long shot indeed.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 27, Ravens 16
11/19 13:56:00 ET