The upstart Indianapolis Colts have overachieved this season, but won’t be a pushover for an inconsistent Baltimore Ravens team that won the AFC North after a up-and-down season. The Colts have been inspirational and extremely easy to root for throughout the year but can they go into M&T Bank Stadium and get the win? I definitely think they can, but it really depends on what Ravens offense shows up. Here’s a quick breakdown of each unit and my final pick straight up and against the spread.
What to Watch for
When the Ravens are on offense: The Ravens offense has looked both dominant and dominated at different times throughout the season. They made a change at offensive coordinator mid-season going to Jim Caldwell before week 15. Baltimore’s offense has struggled to the finish as they lost three of their last four games. Joe Flacco was starting to get mentioned in the “elite” discussion early in the season, but things went downhill at the end of the season as injuries took their toll. Flacco threw 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this year and threw for over 3,500 yards but is still a much=debated quarterback. Some see him as an emerging elite while others see him as only a major liability. He won’t be able to rely on his defense as heavily as in the past this year, so the Ravens need a good playoff run from Flacco if they want to go deep in the AFC.
Speaking of big games, Ray Rice should be in for a huge one as he goes against the Colts defense. Rice finished the year with his lowest touch count (318) since his rookie season. On his 257 carries Rice accounted for 1,143 yards and nine touchdowns while adding 478 yards and one more touchdown on 61 catches. If the Ravens ride Rice on Sunday like they’ve been saving him all year to do, he should be in for a monster game and could single-handedly get Baltimore to the Conference Semifinal next week.
When the Ravens take to the air, look for them to continue to look to get the ball to tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Pitta has emerged as the better receiver this year finishing with 61 catches and seven touchdowns to go with his 669 yards this season. Wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have both dealt with injuries this season, but are expected to be healthy for this one. Boldin led the Ravens in receiving yards with 921 while Smith led in receiving touchdowns with eight.
Since the Colts struggle to stop the run, ranking 29th in the league, look for a huge helping of Ray Rice with plenty of touches coming his way both on the ground and on screens and check-downs.
When the Colts are on defense: The Colts defense has struggled this season. They allowed 25 points or more five times this season and ranked in the bottom third in both passing and rushing defense allowing more rushing yards than everyone but the Jags, Bills, and Saints. They can definitely still rush the passer with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis but only averaged 2.0 sacks per game which still placed them in the bottom third of the league. The Colts defense has come up with occasional big plays but overall Indianapolis lost the turnover battle especially struggling on the road (-1.5 per game).
When the Colts are on offense: The Colts defense has forced Andrew Luck and the Colts offense into the position of their heroic fourth-quarter comebacks. Luck has looked worthy all the lofty accolades he earned headed into the NFL draft last year setting numerous rookie records this season and finishing with 23 touchdowns and 4,374 yards passing behind a offensive line that has allowed him to be sacked over two and a half times per game. Luck has been asked to shoulder the load in the Colts offense and looks to be the real deal already even after just one season in the NFL.
What makes what Luck has done so incredible is his team’s lack of other options. Remember the Colts had the number one pick because they were bad last year. The running game with rookie Vick Ballard has done better recently but still ranked 22nd in the league in yards per game. Ballard received an increased roll after Donald Brown was injured and right away starred in one of the highlight reel plays of the year as he corkscrewed into the endzone in overtime to beat Tennessee. Ballard finished the year with 814 yards rushing but only three total touchdowns and just one 100-yard game.
Luck does have weapons at his disposal in the passing game. He’s utilized his veteran receivers Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery as well as fellow-rookies T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, and Coby Fleener to make plays when he needed them down the stretch.
When the Ravens are on defense: The Ravens defense has faded from its glory years to be sure and can no longer single-handedly propel Baltimore to the Super Bowl. However, they are getting healthy for the first time this season as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Bernard Pollard will all be on the field for the first time this season. It will also most likely be the final home game for Ray Lewis as the legendary linebacker has announced his retirement at the end of the season.
The Ravens defense has shown some weaknesses throughout the season, but they’ll be fired up and playing inspired football as they welcome Lewis back and could be a tough task for rookie Andrew Luck to dissect without some major help from his running game.
Special Teams: Rookie T.Y. Hilton out of Florida International has proven a third-round steal providing dynamic plays at wide receivers and starring on punt returns. He finished eighth in the league in average returns and brought one to the house as well. Deji Karim had a kick return for a touchdown as well. Kicker Adam Vinatieri had another solid season making 26 of his 33 attempts and has plenty of experience in pressure situations if it comes down to a last-minute kick.
Baltimore knows the importance of special teams after a missed kick cost them a trip to the Super Bowl last year. This year the kicking duties have been handled by rookie Justin Tucker out of Texas who finished 30-33 and made all his kicks within 40 yards and has a longer range than Vinatieri although he lacks the experience. Return duties are handled primarily by Jacoby Jones who had three touchdowns on returns this season and has the ability to take all the way whenever he gets his hands on it.
Straight-up: The Ravens at home with a healthy and fresh Ray Rice and an inspired defensive performance will prove to be too much for the Colts. The Chuck Pagano story has truly been inspirational and the ascendency of Andrew Luck the feel-good story of the season. However, the Colts were only 4-4 away from Lucas Oil Stadium and lost road gamed at the Bears, the Jets, the Texans, and the Patriots. Their road wins were only over the Titans, Jags, Lions, and Chiefs. Andrew Luck has struggled a bit with interceptions since he’s asked to do so much and we all know what Ed Reed can do once he gets his hands on the ball.
The Colts are definitely easy to cheer for and a great story, but I think it comes to an end under a heavy dose of Ray Rice and some nice change of pace carries from rookie Bernard Pierce.
Against the spread: The spread is 7 which seems almost perfect for this game. While I think the game is competitive early, Rice and the Ravens D will separate in the fourth quarter as the Ravens cover the spread to get a home playoff win and move on to face the Broncos (most likely) next week.
Final Score: Baltimore 34, Indianapolis 20