On Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, the Baltimore Ravens will face off against the team that once had this town’s love and adoration before it was hauled off in a Mayflower truck on that snowy night in March of 1984.
While it still cuts deep into fans of Baltimore Colts yesteryear, that isn’t the main headline going into Sunday’s showdown, nor should it be.
The Colts come to Baltimore with emotions on full tilt, led again by head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano who returns to the sidelines after courageously battling a treatable form of leukemia.
The Ravens learned late Wednesday morning that their emotional leader would be returning to the field after a torn triceps muscle injury. Shockingly, however, Ray Lewis announced to both his teammates and the football world that this season, the post-season, would be the final ride of a 17-year career.
So many emotions intertwined, ironies fit for a movie script and yet, we haven’t even begun to talk about the actual game itself. The upstart Indianapolis Colts, led by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, and the wily, veteran-laden Baltimore Ravens who make an NFL best fifth-straight appearance in the playoffs.
Despite inconsistencies and injuries, the Ravens (10-6) find themselves in good position to advance past the Colts on Wild Card weekend. For that to happen however as is the case with any team trying to win a football game, they’ll need to dominate in all three phases of the game; offense, defense and special teams. Here are three keys to the Baltimore Ravens winning on Sunday.
Control Time of Possession – The Indianapolis Colts are 13th in the NFL in time of possession (30:46) and they do it with a fairly balanced offensive attack led by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The Ravens average 28:40 in time of possession, good for just 29th in the NFL.
Luck struggled in Week 13 and 14, throwing five interceptions combined but has been more effective the final three weeks of the season, throwing five touchdowns to zero picks. The offense runs through Luck’s play-making ability as the Colts running game is 22nd in the NFL.
If the Ravens can set the tone early running the football against a Colts defense that ranks 7th in the NFL against the run, they’ll be able to rack up first downs, eat away at the clock and keep the football out of Luck’s hands while he sits uncomfortably on the bench.
The Ravens average 4.3 yards this season on the ground. If Ray Rice can get the Ravens to some 2nd and 3 or 4 and some manageable third down and short situations, they can get that over 5.0 yards a carry. That in turn opens up the down field threat for Joe Flacco and poses problems for the Colts secondary.
Winning the T.O.P. battle would give the Ravens the opportunity to get out to a lead early and make Luck throw the football from behind, increasing the chance of mistakes against a secondary playing better as of late.
Neutralizing Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney -There’s not many teams that sport a duo on the edges like Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Mathis has eight sacks on the season while Freeney has only collected five. But the speed and sheer power that these two bring will be a challenge to a Ravens offensive line that has had trouble at times during the season handling pressure from the edge.
The Ravens did a great job handling the New York Giants duo of Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora, two of the best pass rushers in the NFL in Week 16. The duo combined for zero sacks as the line frustrated them all afternoon.
A comfortable Joe Flacco is a good Joe Flacco and should the offensive line manage to stop Robert Mathis (who’s combination of power and speed are hard to find in the NFL) and Dwight Freeney (who’s rip and swim move are what all pass rushers envy), then Joe Flacco should have time to throw the football down field to Torrey Smith and pick on corner backs Cassius Vaughn and Vontae Davis, both under 6′ feet tall.
Win The Turnover Battle/Dominate Special Teams – Alright, so this is a two-part key. Joe Flacco has done better overall as of late in protecting the football and that’s what they’ll need to do again on Sunday. The Ravens will be in trouble if they turn the football over and give the Colts short field position, a team that in the last five weeks have scored nine touchdowns in 12 red zone opportunities.
The Ravens themselves sport a +9 turnover differential, good for 8th in the NFL. If they protect the football and get some turnovers on Andrew Luck, this game could get out of reach very quickly.
On special teams, one of the best pickups this season was the addition of Jacoby Jones. Jones’ play-making ability means he can take punt or kick returns to the house from anywhere on the field with his speed and athleticism. Getting good field position from his runs and good blocking from teammates will set-up the Ravens short field opportunities nicely.
Sam Koch didn’t have the greatest game last week, but overall the seven-year pro is averaging 47.1 yards per punt, the highest mark for his career. Pinning an up-tempo Colts offense deep in their own territory and then having to deal with a ravenous crowd could be a dangerous combo.
Then there’s kicker Justin Tucker who’s made clutch kicks for the Ravens in the 2012 season, converting 30-of-33 field goals in his rookie campaign. Obviously the playoffs are much different than the regular season, but Tucker has proven the Ravens correct by keeping him after a training camp battle with Billy Cundiff. With these two teams, it could all come down to a game-winning field goal attempt from Justin Tucker or the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri. I’m taking my chances with Justin Tucker.
Other Players To Watch
T.Y. Hilton – The Colts wide receiver has emerged in Indy and has blazing speed, something the Ravens secondary will need to keep close tabs on. The Ravens corners are susceptible to double moves and with Hilton’s speed, Andrew Luck will want to take his shots to see if Cary Williams or Chykie Brown will bite.
Deji Karim – Karim was inserted into the kick return role late this season and gave the Colts a boost. He was basically shot out of a cannon last week against the Houston Texans when he returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown. The Ravens will have to work hard to shut down his breakaway speed.
Final Prediction: Ravens 20 Colts 13
Matt Lund is a contributor for BaltimoreSportsReport.com and co-host of the BSR Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @MattCLund.