A few weeks ago, very few of us expected to see the Baltimore Ravens in this position. Alas, ahead of Wild Card weekend, here we are.
Apparently, here's what losing four of five down the stretch gets you: a date with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, 1 p.m.).
The Ravens may be at home, but taking down Indianapolis in the playoffs—especially when Indianapolis has won five of its last six—is going to be no simple feat. Here's a look at what each side needs to do to move on in the postseason.
Ravens Must Rediscover Their Confidence, Especially on Defense
For a while at the beginning of the season, the Ravens were winning games, but they weren't winning by much. From Sept. 23 to Oct. 14, Baltimore went 4-0, but it won each game during that stretch by an average of 3.25 points per game.
In a four-week chunk of the season after the bye, there were a couple of games where the Ravens managed to put up more points—but against bad teams. And after that, even facing the fading Steelers and the Chargers, they won two games by three points before dropping four of five down the stretch.
Baltimore may not have won many of its games by much, but it managed to do just enough, and for a few of those losses, it came up one or two plays short. Winning in the playoffs is all about doing just enough to stay alive, especially in the fourth quarter. In last week's loss to the Bengals, the Ravens allowed 16 second-half points after allowing just a touchdown in the first half. In a prior loss to Denver, their defense was a mess the whole game, but that was even more problematic when their offense failed to show up in the first half, too.
Maybe the Ravens got some lucky bounces earlier in the season, and when they started facing playoff contenders over the last several weeks, it was harder to get away with wins. This team is just going to have to think back to the early days of 2012, when it could beat the Cincinnatis and New Englands of the world, and find a way to keep up—and then sustain some momentum for a full 60 minutes.
Colts Must Score Early and Hold On
Like the Ravens, Indianapolis, for the most part, hasn't been a team that wins blowouts. Only twice this season have the Colts won a game by more than a touchdown. But they still win, and mostly, it's because they are efficient on offense early on in games, and once they get that momentum going, it's hard to thwart it.
In last week's 28-16 win over the Houston Texans, Andrew Luck & Co. put their first touchdown on the board midway through the first quarter and managed to tack another one on the board each quarter thereafter. Meanwhile, the Colts defense held Houston to two field goals through the first half.
Compare that with what happened to this team in a loss to the Texans two weeks earlier. The Colts went scoreless through the first quarter and went into halftime down 20-10. The offense was struggling and the defense couldn't put up a fair fight, not in the first half and not in the second. Indianapolis was shut out in the fourth quarter as well and fell 29-17.
For much of this season, Indianapolis has been a team that feeds off momentum. Sometimes, it's positive—the offense gets going early, generates some confidence and can't be stopped. Other times, though, the mistakes pile up and this team has a hard time staying focused.
Against a vulnerable team like the Ravens, the Colts have a huge opportunity here. They need to come out firing and put away their opponent before halftime because robbing the Ravens of their confidence early could pay off big.