Colts head coach Chuck Pagano will make his playoff debut against his most recent former team.
There will be plenty of familiarity between the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens when the two teams square off in Sunday's wild-card showdown. The biggest storyline in the NFL in 2012—and one of the more inspiring ones of all time—comes from Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano, who battled his way back to the sideline in Week 17 after being diagnosed with leukemia earlier in the season.
Who will win?
Pagano served as the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2011 and was the secondary coach before that. He coached at the University of Miami when Baltimore legends Ed Reed and Ray Lewis played there, and has plenty of familiarity with them in that regard.
Lewis made headlines himself, saying this week that the playoffs were his "last ride." The stunning retirement announcement has taken the Ravens locker room—and anyone with any stake in the league—by storm.
But it doesn't end there.
Colts offensive coordinator and interim head coach extraordinaire Bruce Arians is very familiar with the Ravens, having called plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers for five seasons prior to joining Pagano's staff this year.
Arians has done an admirable job of developing No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck at quarterback, and the rookie has been relatively spectacular despite suspect pass protection and frequent downfield throws.
Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh will certainly be consulting his brother Jim for any help possible on how to stop Luck, since Jim Harbaugh was Luck's coach at Stanford University.
All of these factors and more make this matchup in M&T Bank Stadium an absolute must-see event. Here is a full breakdown of the game, including spread information, keys to the game and a final score prediction.
Current Betting Line (via Bovada)
Money Line: Indianapolis (+250), Baltimore (-300)
Spread: Baltimore (-6.5)
The line seems a little high despite the fact that the Ravens have home-field advantage. There are too many ties between these two teams to have Baltimore as a touchdown favorite, especially with so much inconsistency on both sides of the ball.
What's at Stake
A slot in the AFC divisional round is the obvious answer here, but there is so much riding on this game that makes it so intriguing.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco hasn't secured a long-term contract and could possibly become a free agent this offseason. He needs a strong playoff performance, and considering this is Lewis' last hurrah, the pressure is on.
A loss here would make it tough to justify Flacco as the future, because he will have been to the postseason in his first five years in the league without a Super Bowl appearance.
For Indy, it's simply the continuance of a storybook season. It would sting to see this uplifting team fizzle out in the first round, and the majority of otherwise impartial viewers are likely to be cheering for the Colts.
If the Colts find a way to pull this one out, it will just add to the optimism for the bright immediate future of the organization. And the Ravens will be under much more pressure to win this game.
Injury News (h/t ESPN)
No injuries to report, but safety Tom Zbikowski and DE Cory Redding are both listed as probable for Sunday's game.
Both are former Ravens that Pagano brought with him to Indianapolis, and play key roles in the defensive scheme. Their presence should serve the team well, but particularly Zbikowski's, who missed the last five games of the regular season with a knee injury.
Bernard Pollard, S (ribs) QUESTIONABLE, Ray Lewis, LB (triceps) QUESTIONABLE, Tandon Ross, WR (hand) QUESTIONABLE.
Two key defensive cogs in Pollard and Lewis could be missing for Baltimore, who needs all the help it can get on the back end especially and would greatly benefit from Lewis' sheer emotional presence on the field.
Colts Player to Watch: WR T.Y. Hilton
The third-round pick out of Florida International has emerged as Luck's No. 2 option in the passing game, and the pair connected on a season-defining play against the Houston Texans in Week 17.
Facing 3rd-and-23, Luck conjured up his uncanny knack for making big plays in the most difficult situations. Hilton utilized his blazing speed to beat the Texans secondary over the top, and Luck laid it right in to him for what turned out to be the deciding touchdown in a 28-16 triumph.
Hilton was third on the team with 50 receptions but registered a team-high 17.2 yards per catch. His explosiveness will present the thin crop of Ravens corners with some serious problems, and his ability to make people miss in space can help take pressure off of Luck early with quick passes turning into strong gains.
Ravens Player to Watch: QB Joe Flacco
It's time for this man to take that next big step. It nearly happened in Foxborough in the 2011 playoffs, when Flacco's pass was knocked out of Lee Evans' hands for what could have been the touchdown that put Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
Alas, Flacco still hasn't ultimately got it done. The stakes just got higher with Lewis' retirement announcement.
As clutch as Luck has been this season with seven game-winning drives, it may come down to Flacco having to make some huge plays to keep the Ravens in it. If he truly is an elite quarterback, Flacco will get it done. Otherwise, the Ravens may move on with a new solution under center.
It will be interesting to see how Flacco handles all these variables to say the least.
The Colts don't have the best rush defense statistically. In fact, it is among the worst in the NFL. That's not a good thing when facing a backfield featuring superstar Ray Rice and pleasantly surprising rookie Bernard Pierce.
If Indy can figure out a way to stymie the Baltimore rushing attack even a little bit and force Flacco into obvious passing downs, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney may be able to wreak havoc as pass-rushers.
That said, the combination of Rice and Pierce gashing the Colts early and the raucous Ravens crowd will be too much for this young Indianapolis team to overcome.
Colts 31, Ravens 28
Taking the over in terms of total score on this one, because Indianapolis should have a big advantage in the passing game and be forced to put it up a lot while Rice should be able to manage 100-plus yards and multiple touchdowns.
The game is really going to come down to which quarterback can get it done in the clutch. Even with this season alone, Luck has proven how clutch he can be. The same can't exactly be said for Flacco.
It ultimately comes down to which signal-caller will drive his team to victory, and I'm going with Luck. Not to mention, the Colts have one of the most clutch kickers of all-time in Adam Vinatieri, and envisioning a game-winning drive by the Colts doesn't seem at all far-fetched.
Because it's just been that kind of a year for Indianapolis. Luck has nothing and everything to do with it.