About four years ago the idea of a team, in the playoffs, heading to New England and beating Tom Brady one week and then going to Indianapolis and beating Peyton Manning the next would be about as likely as me sleeping with Alessandra Ambrosio one weekend and Megan Fox the next.
So hopefully if the Baltimore Ravens win at Indianapolis this week that will mean that I’ll be a little busy the next two weekends.
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Baltimore heads to Indianapolis this Saturday fresh off a 33-14 thrashing of Brady’s Patriots to take on the Colts in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game. The Ravens and Colts will play at 8 p.m. and Indianapolis has been listed as a 6.5-point favorite. The total is set at 44.5.
This game is a rematch of a 17-15 Colts win at Baltimore back on Nov. 22. It’s also the second playoff matchup between these teams in the last four years.
Indianapolis has absolutely dominated this series over the past decade. These teams have faced off six times in the last five seasons and the Colts have won, and covered, every single meeting. In fact, this year’s matchup is the only meeting that has been determined by less than a touchdown and Indy’s average margin of victory through those six games is a robust 15 points per game.
What’s worse for the Ravens is that four of those six games were played in Baltimore. The last time the Ravens have had to face Manning in Indianapolis was 2008. It didn’t end well for them (31-3).
That said, last week the Ravens earned their first-ever win over the Patriots. What’s to say that they can’t snap their streak against the Colts this time around?
There are two statistics that really leave the door open for a Ravens upset. First, the Colts are No. 25 in the NFL in rushing defense. Baltimore is the No. 5 rushing team in the NFL this year and they absolutely rammed the ball down the throats of the Patriots last weekend. If Baltimore can run the ball against Indianapolis, controlling the clock and winning the field position battle, then they could be in business.
Second, the Colts are No. 32 in the NFL in rushing offense. They don’t run much or very effectively. The bad news for the Ravens (and the rest of the NFL) is that means that the ball is in Manning’s hands a majority of the game. But the good news for Baltimore is that they are No. 8 in the NFL versus the pass, No. 5 in interceptions, and No. 9 in completion percentage against. Ed Reed is at full strength and can match up with Dallas Clark and that means that if the back seven plays well Baltimore could keep this game close.
Here’s what makes the Colts successful: they don’t make mistakes and they take advantage of opponents that do. The Colts simply play razor sharp football and let Manning go out and win games for them. That is it. Defensively, they play a bend-but-don’t break Cover-2. They will allow teams to move the ball on them all day long between the 20s. They wait for teams to shoot themselves in the feet with incompletions or penalties or Indy will step out and make a timely play with its stud defensive ends for a sack or forced fumble.
But if teams can execute, especially in the red zone, then they can score some points and beat the Colts. Baltimore should be able to force the ball down the field with incredible Ray Rice and a full stable of bruising backs. But this game is going to come down to whether or not Joe Flacco can make plays and find Baltimore’s limited receiving weapons in or near the end zone.
In the first meeting the Ravens won the turnover battle (3-to-2) and committed less penalties (5-to-2). Baltimore was outgained by a mere 21 yards. But they couldn’t execute in the red zone, going 0-for-4 (compared to Indy’s 2-for-4) while failing to score a touchdown on the day. Baltimore also missed a field goal while ex-Ravens kicker (and current Colts leg) Matt Stover didn’t miss on his one shot, a 25-yarder that provided the difference with seven minutes left to play.
If Baltimore can’t find a way to punch the ball in when they get in the red zone on Saturday then I don’t think that it will stay much of a game for very long. Especially in a hostile environment.
Offensively, the Colts are just a machine. They have four receivers, including All-World Tight End Dallas Clark, who can blow up on any given day. Manning spreads the ball around and doesn’t miss many throws. The Colts offensive line is rock solid and keeps the pressure off Manning. When he has time to throw there is no one better, as evidenced by Manning completing 69 percent of his passes this season (which is amazing) en route to his record fourth MVP Award.
Baltimore’s defense, obviously, is serious. They are No. 3 in the NFL in yards allowed, No. 8 against the pass and No. 5 against the run. They also only allow 16.3 points per game, No. 3 in the league, and this roster is dotted with grizzled playoff veterans.
Now, Manning and the Colts have folded in the playoffs before. They have mainly come undone when opposing defenses could get pressure and throw off the timing of Indy’s attack (see: Pittsburgh in 2006). On the other side, teams in the playoffs generally have sharper quarterback play. And that means more effective red zone offenses (see: New England). Again: if you can make fewer mistakes than the Colts you can beat them. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
The Ravens have played the toughest schedule in the league and their record on the season is not indicative of just how strong of a team that they have been. However, Baltimore’s biggest problem all year has been that they make dumbfounding mistakes at absurd times. Basically, the issue has been that they don’t execute. Indianapolis absolutely devours teams like that. So that is the key to this game and the one thing that I think will be the determinant: execution. The best ways to measure execution are turnovers and penalties. The more subtle things to look for are dropped passes, missed throws, clock management and missed assignments in coverage. Whichever team executes more expertly will be the team that advances.
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Home field advantage, Manning, total domination in the series over the last six years, and an extra week of rest are some pretty significant impediments to Baltimore’s playoff run this week. But then again, Brady, Foxboro, a decade of domination in the series and Belichick were supposed to form a death knell for the Ravens last week. It used to be that the more physical team, the team with the better defense and running game, would win in the playoffs. This weekend we’ll see if that old maxim still holds up or if it is as dead as the Baltimore Colts.