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NFL Playoff Preview - Baltimore (10-7) at Indianapolis (14-2)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - An AFC Divisional Playoff game will be held at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night, when the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts play host to the upset-minded Baltimore Ravens. When they take the field, the Colts will also be holding a referendum on their approach to the playoffs.
It was just after halftime in a Dec. 27 meeting against the Jets that Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell decided to sacrifice the potential of going 16-0 in order to rest many of his key players, including quarterback Peyton Manning, for the postseason. Predictably, the Colts allowed a 15-10 lead to morph in to a 29-15 loss in the game, much to the consternation of the home crowd in Indianapolis. The practice, which was repeated in the following week's 30-7 defeat at Buffalo, sparked a national debate on whether Caldwell and company were making the right move by coasting to the finish.
Thanks to last week's bye, the Colts will take the field on Saturday night having gone nearly a month without playing to win from beginning to end, and there is history to suggest that the approach might not bring out the best in Indy. During the Manning era, the Colts are 0-3 in their playoff opener after earning a bye, falling in 1999 (19-16 to the Titans), 2005 (21-18 to the Steelers), and 2007 (28-24 to the Chargers).
The organization's only Super Bowl title of recent vintage came after the 2006 campaign, when the Colts played to win in Week 17 and participated in wild card weekend. Incidentally, the team's 29-17 victory over the Bears on Super Bowl XLI to cap off that season represents the club's most recent playoff win.
Indianapolis was bounced by the Chargers in both the 2007 and 2008 postseason.
The questions surrounding the Ravens have less to do with the way they approached the final weeks of the regular season and more with whether they're capable of springing a road upset for a second consecutive week. Baltimore went to New England and stunned the Patriots, 33-14, last Sunday, opening up a 24-0 first-quarter lead and cruising thereafter in what was the Pats' first home postseason loss since 1978.
The victory, which was fueled by a defense that forced four Tom Brady turnovers and a rushing attack that piled up 234 yards thanks mainly to Ray Rice (22 carries, 159 yards, 2 TD) and Willis McGahee (20 carries, 62 yards, 1 TD), turned around what had been a bleak showing against quality opponents this season. Baltimore was 1-6 against the 2009 playoff field as it headed to New England, with the only win coming in San Diego on Sept. 20. The 1-6 mark included a 17-15 home loss to the Colts on Nov. 22nd, a result aided by a late red-zone interception by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, and a dubious decision by Ed Reed to pitch the football, which was fumbled and recovered by Indy, on a punt return in the final minute.
The Colts and Ravens have met once previously in the postseason, with Indianapolis scoring a 15-6 road win in a 2006 AFC Divisional Playoff, en route to a Super Bowl title. Baltimore was coming off a first-round bye in that contest.
The Colts have a 7-2 edge in their all-time regular season series with the Ravens, extending their winning streak in the series to six with their 17-15 road victory in Week 11. Indianapolis handed Baltimore a 31-3 setback at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 6 of last season, and the Ravens are 0-4 in Indy all-time.
Including playoffs, the Ravens are 0-7 against the Colts since last beating them in 2001, including 0-3 in Indianapolis.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is 0-2 in his career against the Colts, while Caldwell is 1-0 against both Harbaugh and Baltimore as a head coach.
The Colts franchise called Baltimore home from 1953 through the 1983 season.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Another quick start will be recommended for a Ravens offense that stormed out of the gate last week, after being notorious for beginning slow during the regular season. Also of note is the fact that the Flacco-led offense hasn't scored a single touchdown over the span of eight quarters in its last two meetings with Indianapolis. Flacco found a strange way to move to 3-1 as a postseason starter last week, with his 34 passing yards (on 4-of-10 completions) ranking in a tie for the fewest in a win during the Super Bowl era, equaling the 34 thrown by the Dolphins' Bob Griese in a 27-10 win over the Raiders in the AFC Championship on Dec. 30, 1973. The sophomore QB, who has been battling foot and hip problems, will try to get wideouts Derrick Mason (1 reception) and Mark Clayton (1 reception) more involved this week. Tight end Todd Heap is a question mark after injuring his back late in the going against New England. Mason had nine catches for 142 yards in the Week 11 meeting with Indy, both season-highs. Rice and McGahee combined for just 96 yards on 26 carries in that loss.
The Colts defense has long been overshadowed by the team's work on the other side of the ball, but Larry Coyer's group was at least partially responsible for Indy's 14-2 record. Indy surrendered just 19.2 points per game during the regular season - tied for eighth-best in the league, and was also in the top half of the NFL in sacks (34), interceptions (16), and passing defense (212.7 yards per game). The pass rush, led by Dwight Freeney (24 tackles, 13.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (37 tackles, 9.5 sacks), remains the scariest element of the Colts defense, and made life easier for a playmaking secondary led by safeties Antoine Bethea (95 tackles, 4 INT) and Melvin Bullitt (77 tackles). Indy did not have a sack of Flacco in Week 11. The Colts are deep at cornerback, but solid rookies Jerraud Powers (66 tackles, 1 INT) and Jacob Lacey (85 tackles, 3 INT) will probably get the first crack at Mason at Clayton. As mentioned, Indianapolis did a solid job against Rice and the Baltimore running game last time out, with linebackers Gary Brackett (99 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack), Clint Session (103 tackles, 2 INT) and defensive tackle Daniel Muir (52 tackles) all especially active against the run. Brackett posted a team-high nine tackles in the win, as well as a critical interception of Flacco late in the contest.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
After enduring back-to-back playoff frustrations, and not being allowed to play a full game since Week 15 in Jacksonville, expect Colts quarterback and recently-named NFL MVP Peyton Manning to be ready to play on Saturday night. Manning (4500 passing yards, 33 TD, 16 INT) is just 7-8 in the postseason, with four of the wins coming in the Super Bowl year, but is 7-2 against the Ravens in his career. Manning was 22-of-31 for 299 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in Baltimore in Week 11. Pierre Garcon (47 receptions, 4 TD) was high-man on the receiving end in that contest, making his six grabs count for 108 yards, while Pro Bowl wideout Reggie Wayne (100 receptions, 10 TD) had a team-high seven catches totaling 89 yards in the win. With Baltimore putting the clamps on tight end Dallas Clark (100 receptions, 10 TD) and slot receiver Austin Collie (60 receptions, 7 TD), who combined for just two receptions and 15 yards in that game, Manning completed six passes for 80 yards to formerly anonymous tight end Tom Santi (8 receptions). The Colts led the league in third-down percentage (49.2) and fewest sacks allowed (13) during the regular season, and were tied for first in touchdown passes (34) and fewest fumbles lost (5), but were last in rushing offense (80.9 yards per game). Running backs Joseph Addai (828 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 13 TD) and Donald Brown (281 rushing yard, 3 TD, 11 receptions) will have their work cut out for them against a staunch Baltimore run-stopping group.
The biggest question mark for Baltimore last week was how a makeshift group of cornerbacks was going to handle New England's bevy of targets, and that's a question that will remain against the likes of Wayne, Clark and company. Baltimore mitigated the weaknesses of cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth (9 tackles), Frank Walker (2 tackles), and Chris Carr (5 tackles, 1 INT) last week by putting a great deal of pressure on Tom Brady. A Ravens defense that had not done much blitzing during the regular season altered that approach, with Ray Lewis among those who came after Brady. Pass rusher Terrell Suggs (3 tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR) and tackle Dwan Edwards (7 tackles) also had sacks of the QB. Safeties Ed Reed (4 tackles) and Dawan Landry (7 tackles) both had interceptions of Brady last week, and each posted INTs of Manning back in Week 11. The strength of the Ravens defense remains its run-stopping ability, and Baltimore allowed just 64 ground yards to New England last week. Lewis led the way with 13 tackles in the victory, while tackles Haloti Ngata (3 tackles) and Edwards combined for 10.
Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff's first game in a Ravens uniform came on Nov. 22 against the Colts, when he drilled 5-of-6 field goals to account for all 15 Baltimore points. Cundiff made good on field goals of 27 and 23 yards against the Patriots last week, and helped keep New England off-balance with some well- placed, intentionally short kickoffs. Punter Sam Koch averaged just 34 yards per boot last week but remains solid as both a directional and long-distance kicker. Carr added value with a 34-yard punt return last week, but Jalen Parmele did not break long runs on either of his kickoff returns. The Ravens' coverage units had some problems last week, allowing a 42-yard kickoff return to Darius Butler and a 28-yard punt return to Julian Edelman.
Saturday could be a bit surreal for Indianapolis kicker Matt Stover (9-11 FG), the leading scorer in Ravens team history who kicked in 11 playoff games with Baltimore from 2000 to 2008. Stover hasn't missed a postseason kick of any kind since Jan. 13, 2002, when he missed an inconsequential field goal against the Dolphins. Stover was 2-for-2 against Baltimore in Week 11. Rookie Pat McAfee (44.3) had a strong year punting the football. On punt returns, T.J. Rushing (5.7 yards per game) was not particularly explosive, but Baltimore native Chad Simpson (23.6 avg.) had a 93-yard kickoff return for a TD against the Jaguars in Week 14. The Colts coverage unit has been susceptible to the big return, allowing a disappointing 25.3 yards on kickoffs, including a 106-yard TD return to the Jets' Brad Smith in a Week 16 loss.
The Ravens' performance last week against the Patriots perhaps shows that they were a wolf in sheep's clothing during the regular season, and the fact that Baltimore played Indianapolis nearly even back in November should have Harbaugh's squad brimming with confidence as it takes the field Saturday night. The Ravens should be able to move the football against the Colts, and figure to find the end zone a couple of times against Indy after coming up short in that area in the last battle. But the matchup is tough for the Baltimore defense, which won't be able to attack the quick-firing Manning the way it did Brady last week, thus leaving a highly suspect group of cornerbacks exposed on the back end. What's more, the fact that Indianapolis is indeed rested, while the Ravens are taking their fourth high-pressure road trip in as many weeks, is another mark in favor of the home team. Look for Harbaugh's squad to keep it interesting, but ultimately fall.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 23, Ravens 19
01/13 16:03:10 ET