Colts vs. Ravens: Can Luck and Company Keep the Magic Going in the Playoffs?
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The Indianapolis Colts are too young to be in the playoffs.
The Indianapolis Colts have no business being in the playoffs.
The Indianapolis Colts have every intention of winning in the playoffs.
Whereas everyone predicted the Baltimore Ravens would be hosting a postseason game, no one saw the Colts coming. Certainly no one thought Indianapolis would wind up with a better record than Baltimore.
Now, for the third time in seven years, the Colts will take on Ray Lewis and company for the right to advance deeper into the postseason.
Here's what you need to know about the matchup.
By now the long, bitter history between the Colts and Ravens is a familiar story to football fans. There's really no need to go into the franchise roots.
Of course, most of the game history between the two teams was dominated by Peyton Manning. During his tenure in Indianapolis, the Colts owned the Ravens.
Indianapolis is 9-3 against Baltimore, with Manning figuring prominently in 10 of the 12 games. From 2002 to 2010, the Colts were a perfect 8-0 against the Ravens, including two playoff wins, both of which propelled the Colts into the Super Bowl.
The franchises are tied by more than just dusty origin stories and recent encounters, however.
Head coach Chuck Pagano was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens last year. The man he replaced in Indianapolis, Jim Caldwell, is now running the Ravens offense.
By the time these teams take the field Sunday, they'll know exactly what a victory means. Depending on the outcome of the Bengals-Texans game, the winner will travel to either New England or to Denver.
While neither option is appeal, dealing with Peyton Manning or Tom Brady on the road is a problem either club would gladly have to solve.
Matchup To Watch
Andrew Luck vs. Ray Lewis
There are plenty of other matchups that will likely affect the game more than anything Ray Lewis does.
However, given that this is going to be the only time the players will ever take the field together, their personal chess match should captivate everyone's attention.
Lewis is one of the most respected, decorated middle linebackers in NFL history. He's been disrupting and outsmarting NFL quarterbacks since Luck was eight years old.
After years of coming up short against the greatest playing mind of the past half-century, Lewis now enters the final game of his career against the newest Colt wunderkind. Long past the point where he can dominate the game physically, Lewis will be charged with outthinking the brightest young offensive thinker in the game.
Luck has many abilities, but the dominant characteristic he possesses is a world-class mind. His task will be to exploit the aged and injured Hall of Famer to be.
Lewis will retire after the matchup, and even if he reconsidered, the two teams won't face each other in the 2013 regular season, so this is the only time they'll ever be on the field together.
There are moments as an NFL fan when you have to set aside rooting interests, albeit ever so briefly, and be thankful for the chance to see fantastic players square off, even if neither is in his prime.
Stat that Matters
The Ravens turned the ball over just 16 times in 2012. That's second-best in the NFL.
The Colts deviated from a once-record pace for fewest forced turnovers in NFL history, but still managed to force just 15, 30th in the league and tied for fifth-worst of all time.
If there is any consolation to be had for the Colts, it's that the defense forced five turnovers in the final two weeks and seven in the final four games after coming up with just eight takeaways in first 12 outings.
Unless something changes, the Indy offense is going to have a lot of long fields to work with, and the defense won't be able to count on turnovers to kill long drives.
Biggest Advantage for the Colts
Baltimore has massive coverage issues with secondary receivers.
That could bode well for T.Y. Hilton's ability to get loose for big plays.
Jimmy Smith has missed large stretches of time with a sports hernia, and hasn't played well even when on the field.
Injuries have decimated the Ravens all season, and their injury report for this game is lengthy.
That challenges a team's depth, and the Colts will seek to exploit that weakness by flooding the zone with pass-catching targets.
If the line can give Luck enough time to throw, Hilton could run wild in the secondary.
Biggest Advantage for the Ravens
The Colts have the worst run defense in the NFL.
The Ravens have Ray Rice.
That alone could be game, set and proverbial match for Baltimore.
As much as everyone will focus on Joe Flacco, the Colts have to stop Rice to have any hope of pulling off an upset.
The Colts are particularly vulnerable around the right end where Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney share time with Jerry Hughes.
The Ravens are fifth in the league running around the outside of tackle Kelechi Osemele. Indy will have to hold its edge against him if they want to slow down the dangerous and versatile Rice.
Best Video Only Tangentially Related to the Game
Ah, Baltimore. The runaway winner of "most quietly terrifying city in the United States."
Indianapolis Will Win If...
...Andrew Luck stays upright.
When Luck has time to throw and space to operate, he's deadly. If the Colts can manage to give him time to survey the field, they could easily throw more than a scare into the home team.
Luck has carried the Colts for most of the year, so if they are going to advance deeper into the playoffs, they'll need his best effort yet to do it.
Baltimore Will Win If...
...Rice has his way with the Colts defense.
Indy's game plan will be to keep it close and hope for another Luck miracle at the end. If Rice goes off and rips off big runs to set up touchdowns early, the Colts could get blown out before the fourth quarter even becomes an issue.
The Ravens have question marks all over the field, but they have the best special teams unit in football. Between Rice and their ability to break long returns, they will be difficult to topple at home.
On paper, the Ravens aren't quite as good as their record, but that's nothing compared to the slight of hand Indy has pulled off.
Momentum is an overplayed factor, so if you are looking for an in to call this game, don't go there.
Instead, consider that Indy played their best defensive game of the season once Pagano returned to work. If this game comes down to the Colts defense against the Baltimore offense, Indy has a massive advantage in game-planning.
There's no reason to pick the Colts, but there hasn't been any reason to pick them all year.
It's probably not right to call Indy a team of destiny, as their postseason will almost unquestionably end next week at the latest. Still, it feels like their miracle ride has another win left in it.
Colts 23 Ravens 21
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