Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens — Sunday 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Count all the connections on the field when the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens lineup this Sunday. If you have time, that is.
Like the fact that just one year ago, Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was the head coach of his upcoming opponent, only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance. On January 18, he was fired after a 2-14 finish that landed superfreak quarterback Andrew Luck. Or that prior to Caldwell’s firing, current Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, getting to within one Lee Evans drop and Billy Cundiff miss from the Super Bowl.
And don’t forget to throw in that this is another opportunity for the fans in Baltimore to vicariously punish the franchise that notoriously left it so callously in 1984 by knocking them out of the playoffs.
This will be the third time these two franchises have met in the postseason (they met previously in 2007 and 2010), but the Peyton Manning-led Colts took down Baltimore each time. Ravens fans will certainly be amped up to get another shot at Indianapolis.
If that wasn’t enough emotional baggage to come with Wildcard weekend, Ray Lewis announced to the Ravens earlier this week that he will retire from football following the end of this season, meaning that each time Baltimore suits up could be the last time we ever see Lewis in uniform.
Aside from all the added inspiration that might come from playing for their fiery leader, Baltimore will need to flat-out improve its defensive execution. The Ravens are only 5-5 since Lewis went out with a torn triceps in Week 6 and the once formidable unit now ranks No. 17 overall in total defense. If Lewis is anywhere near his old self—which coach Jim Harbaugh says he will be—the Ravens should easily handle their business against the Colts. But even if he’s at 50 percent, expect a marginal improvement in the team’s defensive efficiency just due to his knowledge of the defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, Baltimore has been hit-or-miss all year, which led to the firing of former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after Week 14 to make way for Caldwell.
The Ravens actually rank behind only the New Orleans Saints in passing plays of 25 yards or more. But QB Joe Flacco has completed less than 60 percent of his passes and the reliance on the pass at times has taken the offense’s focus away from its clear best player, RB Ray Rice.
For Indianapolis, its advantage may just be their ability to rise to the occasion. The Colts put together their most complete game in Week 17 against division rival Houston, giving a healthy Chuck Pagano the reason to dance (sick square dance moves out of Jim Irsay, too).
But even with their heart-warming ability to rally around Pagano during his in-season battle with leukemia, it is hard to ignore that the Colts had the third-easiest schedule in the NFL.
Luck has improved his ball security late this season. He has not thrown an interception or fumbled in the past three weeks. However, he has generally had difficulty protecting the ball on the road. Thirteen of his 18 interceptions have come on the road and he has lost 4 of his 5 fumbles away from home. Luck is a lower rated passer (76.5) than Blaine Gabbert, but ranks 11th overall in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, mainly because of his tremendous success in the fourth quarter. He has shown a knack for shaking off early mistakes to complete late-game comebacks, reminiscent of Eli Manning in 2011.
However, Indianapolis has one of the worst run defenses in the league. I expect Baltimore to really try to establish Ray Rice from their first snap and get out to an early lead. While the Colts should be able to keep the game close, the Ravens (plus-9 turnover differential) will force the Indy offense into a few costly mistakes as they attempt their comeback.
The future in Indianapolis is brighter than anyone could have anticipated in the post-Peyton Manning era but that does not mean their first playoff victory will come this quickly. Baltimore fans will finally be able to rejoice at the demise of their once beloved Colts.
Prediction: Ravens 28, Colts 17