If Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts come out firing on all cylinders against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, they're going to make the seven-point spread look silly.
This year's No. 1 overall pick has the Colts riding hot into the playoffs, as Indy's reeled off five wins in its last six games. And while Baltimore has faced a tougher second-half schedule, the Ravens head into the wild-card matchup with little momentum.
Since going undefeated in November, John Harbaugh's team hasn't played anything like a division champ.
During the month of December, Baltimore went on a three-game losing streak, including getting blown out by the No. 1 seeded Denver Broncos, 34-17.
A 33-14 win over the New York Giants opened some eyes in Week 16, but the Ravens responded by losing to the division-rival and fellow playoff team Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season finale.
Looking at these teams from a personnel and X's and O's standpoint, the Colts can actually hang with the Ravens in this matchup. In fact, they could pull off the upset.
While the Ravens still managed to rank sixth in the AFC in takeaways, their defense was anything but elite.
For the first time since 2007, Baltimore finished outside the top three in points allowed. Missing stars Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb and having other stalwarts like Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs playing at less than 100 percent, the Ravens finished the regular season as the No. 12 scoring defense, surrendering nearly 22 points per game.
It used to be that no one could run the ball against Baltimore's dominant front seven, but injuries at linebacker made that task a whole lot easier for opposing offenses. Opponents averaged about 123 yards per game on the ground—not something Lewis would be proud of.
Although Indianapolis doesn't run the ball particularly well at just 104.4 yards per game, rookie Vick Ballard has come on of late and brings a physical running style to the position.
The 217-pounder turned it on during the second half of the season and finished with 814 rushing yards.
If Indy can at least sprinkle in Ballard and keep Baltimore's defense on its heels, things will open up for Luck and the passing game.
Speaking of Luck, the rookie prodigy turned out to be everything the Colts hoped for and more. He did throw 18 interceptions, but the Colts' offensive system requires him to take chances. With Baltimore's pass rush struggling, Luck could end up having a solid performance, provided he gets time from his offensive line.
With a vast array of options in rejuvenated star Reggie Wayne, speedy slot man T.Y. Hilton and rookie tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, Luck could expose for the Ravens defense for what it is: average.
While the Colts defense falls in the same category—it might even be slightly below—they still have a devastating pair of pass-rushers in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the league's fifth-leading tackler in rookie gem Jerrell Freeman and a pair of sticky-handed corners in Vontae Davis and Darius Butler—both of whom were high draft picks back in 2009.
Indy's defense doesn't have to be great in this one, but if they can force a few turnovers against Joe Flacco and limit the damage from Ray Rice, Luck should keep this game much closer than people might think.
Moving over to the NFC, the rematch between Adrian Peterson and the Green Bay Packers should come down to the wire despite the Packers being favored by eight.
Don't think that was a typo folks. Like they did in Week 17, the Minnesota Vikings will ride the AP train as far as it takes them.
The most deserving MVP candidate overcame a devastating knee injury and poor quarterback play and took his team straight to the playoffs.
Oh, and he came within nine yards of breaking the single-season rushing record.
While Peterson won't suit up on defense (is there anyone doubting he really couldn't play on the other side of the ball?), his ability to churn out yards after contact and keep Aaron Rodgers off the field might be the Vikings' best form of defense.
The problem for the Vikings is that Ponder—who's already limited as a QB—doesn't have Percy Harvin (injured reserve) and is left with a very limited receiving corps. King-sized tight end Kyle Rudolph is a great red-zone threat, but the Vikings have to be in scoring position to really take advantage of his length and ability to go up and get the football.
However, Peterson should be able to shred Green Bay's defense again, as the Packers simply didn't have an answer for the league's best back last week.
Provided Minnesota continues to get great blocking up front, it should be able to move the ball on the ground and do just enough in the passing game to limit Rodgers' snaps.
When Rodgers is on the field, however, the story could be different.
The reigning MVP is playing like one again this season, and the Packers boast a terrific number of receiving options. Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley are as good a quartet as you'll find, and the Vikings don't have the secondary depth to stop them.
Ultimately, Green Bay's passing game should prevail in this one, but if Peterson has anything to say about it, these two teams will be battling to the last second to move on to the next round.
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