A playoff match-up nobody expected to see in September unfolds Sunday afternoon as the surprising Indianapolis Colts travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens. The win total at the outset of the year for the Colts was set at just five, so to see them enter this contest with a stellar 11-5 record is quite the shock. Star rookie Andrew Luck has been as good as advertised in his first year as the Colts’ quarterback, but he’ll take on a hungry, veteran-laden Ravens’ defence that will provide a stern test for his playoff debut.
Baltimore had quite the up-and-down year in 2012, and despite them winning the NFC North division, they seemed to fall short of the lofty expectations set out for them back in September. They’ve been just ravaged by injuries throughout the year, and enter this game a depleted bunch. One of the most injured Ravens, linebacker Ray Lewis, could be making his final NFL appearance as he announced earlier in the week this would be his last season. Expect Lewis’ teammates and loyal fans to be rowdy and motivated Sunday afternoon to help prolong his great career for at least another week. The Ravens were great at home this season, and will look to use that to their advantage against a very young, inexperienced Colts squad. Baltimore doesn’t enter this match-up particularly hot however, losing four of their past five contests. While many would suggest this team backed its way into the post-season, the talent and depth of this roster cannot be questioned. The Ravens are best when it counts, and look for their very best from here on out. On the injury front, the aforementioned Lewis will return from a triceps injury, as will stud receiver Anquan Boldin from a shoulder injury. Baltimore listed 21 players on their injury report, but all are expected to be fine if called upon for Sunday’s game.
Indianapolis as well is no stronger to roller-coaster seasons. After being written off in September, the Colts led by their rookie quarterback embarked on a storybook season, resulting in 11 impressive regular season victories. But perhaps their biggest ordeal was overcoming the loss of their head coach Chuck Pagnano for much of the season. Pagano had to leave the team during the middle of the season to deal with leukemia treatments, and just returned last week in a very emotional victory against the Houston Texans. The Colts enter this contest a dangerous, emotionally charged team, surely playing with a nothing-to-lose mentality. Nobody expected the Colts to be this good, this soon, but here they are primed and ready to take on one of the football’s most experienced sides. After a 2-14 showing in 2011, just getting to this point is big enough of a victory for the Indianapolis franchise, but you can bet they’d like to keep this storybook season rolling. As far as injuries go Indianapolis is a tad banged up entering this game. Star defensive player Dwight Freeney will play through his injury, but hasn’t practiced all week, while starting left guard Joe Reitz will miss this clash with a concussion.
One point not to be overlooked is the fact that both these teams should be quite familiar with one another. The current Ravens’ offensive coordinator, Jim Caldwell, was the head coach of the Colts last season, while Chuck Pagano was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens in 2011. This should be an emotionally charged contest, fuelled with storylines surrounding both Pagano and Ray Lewis. If the youthful Colts become too wrapped up in the drama around the game, the Ravens could give them a stern introduction to playoff football.
Colts vs. Ravens Betting Odds:
Indianapolis Colts +6.5 (-105)
@ Baltimore Ravens -6.5 (-115)
Over 47 (-110)
Under 47 (-110)
Betting odds taken from Bovada.lv
Colts vs. Ravens Pick:
Expect a great encounter between two familiar teams that offer quite the contrasts when comparing one another. The Colts are a team on the upswing, fresh off a surprising season, primed to knock off the grizzled veterans’ of the Baltimore Ravens, seeking one last run at the Vince Lombardi trophy. And when you consider all the extenuating storylines that are surrounding this tilt, NFL fans will be spoiled in the drama department come Sunday.
Though many pundits have been wildly impressed the way the Colts have responded to adversity this season, the fact remains that statistics aren’t in their favour entering this contest. Sure their 11- record is undoubtedly an impressive feat, especially after going 2-14 in 2011, but it can be a bit misleading. The Colts are your classic overachiever, and they will be exposed as one of the worst playoff teams of the past few years. Their point differential over 16-games was at minus-30, a figure which normally produces a record of 7-9. In fact, they’re the first team in league history to win 11 or more games with a negative point differential. Their 11-5 record can mostly be attributed to playing the NFL’s easiest schedule, and going 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They boast few impressive victories on their schedule, and it’d be wise to consider taking their record with a grain of salt.
The Colts haven’t experienced playoff football, and they’ll be in for quite the shell-shock come Sunday afternoon when they take on a Ravens squad that’s done this many times before. The Chuck Pagano story is heart-warming, but emotions alone can only take you so far in this game. Expect the Ravens to overwhelm the inexperienced Colts, especially with their potent ground attack. The key to victory for Baltimore will be simple; hand the ball to Ray Rice. The Colts are ranked dead-last in the NFL when it comes to stopping the run, and gave up 5.91 yards per carry over the last four games. In Week 16, they conceded 350 yards on the ground against the woeful Kansas City Chiefs. Indianapolis will get steamrolled in the run game, and look for Baltimore to exploit this on offense. And when it’s time for something different, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is more than capable of balancing the attack through the air. For all the heat Flacco takes, he’s an experienced quarterback who has won big games in the past. Look for the Ravens to be efficient and precise come Sunday.
For the Colts to win this game, they’ll need to exploit an area of weakness for the Ravens; their run defense. It’s been horrific all season long, and cost them more than a couple of losses. Unfortunately for the Colts, they don’t run the ball particularly well. Vick Ballard is still new to this league, and should be contained by a motivated Ray Lewis-led defensive front. The Colts’ style is to pump the ball through the air using their talented rookie Andrew Luck. Luck likes to throw downfield often, but is prone to throwing interceptions. The Baltimore defense is very opportunistic, and the talented Ed Reed will be lurking in that Ravens’ secondary. Reed has eight interceptions in eleven career playoff games. Indianapolis certainly has an abundance of talent, but that doesn’t hide the fact that they’re still young, and prone to errors. In their eight road games in 2012, they committed 20 turnovers. Expect that figure to rise this week.
Expect an exciting game in front of what promises to be a raucous crowd in Baltimore. Though this year’s Ravens team isn’t as good as they’ve been in years past, they still possess an excellent shot at beating anybody who stands in their way. Sure they enter this contest losers of their past four of five, but these were the games this veteran group was waiting for. Look for a premier outing from the Ravens, both for their fans and for Ray Lewis. Expect Baltimore to get up early in this contest, and be able to coast to a convincing victory on the back of Ray Rice. The Colts won’t be able to stop the clock, and should have no answer for Ray Rice’s ground-and-pound. The Colts’ Cinderella-run comes to a halt in Baltimore. Take the Ravens in convincing fashion.
PICK = Ravens -6.5 (-115)