Two of the NFL's biggest storylines collide on Sunday afternoon as the Indianapolis Colts head to Baltimore to take on the Ravens in the NFL Wild Card Round.
The Colts (11-5) weren't supposed to be a playoff team this year, but Andrew Luck has done it all for this team, as he's shouldered a gigantic load in the Bruce Arians offense, which asked him to take consistent risks without any sort of legitimate blocking in front of him. Now, with their head coach back, the Colts look to get even better for playoff time.
The Ravens (10-6) have dealt with injury after injury this season, which is more than enough excuses, but the Ravens historically haven't dealt in excuses. The offense peaked and sputtered under Cam Cameron, who was jettisoned in favor of former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. The Ravens O will look to ride Ray Rice to victory, but the real question will be if their defense can find its old form against Luck.
Who wins this first-round matchup?
Key Storyline No. 1: #ChuckStrong vs. Ray Lewis' Legacy
For a game between two teams regarded so lightly in the overall playoff picture, Colts vs. Ravens has plenty of amazing storylines to pay attention to.
Congrats to Chuck Pagano and the Indianapolis Colts on a fantastic season. 11-5 after 2-14? #ChuckStrong Indeed.— Gary Davenport (@IDPManor) December 31, 2012
When coach Chuck Pagano left the team to undergo treatment for leukemia, the season should have been over. But Pagano did such a great job installing that defense and Luck matured so quickly under Arians that the Colts find themselves in the playoffs for the first of many times in the post-Manning era.
However, as much as the Colts will be playing for Pagano, the Ravens also have a pretty big incentive:
"I don't know how you can have a bigger legacy with regards to his team, his career & the league than Ray Lewis." -- Brian Billick— NFL Media PR (@InsideNFLMedia) January 6, 2013
Lewis has been the emotional center of the Ravens for years, and his return from injury and final home game will be an incredible boost for an otherwise lackluster Ravens squad.
Key Storyline No. 2: Can Andrew Luck's Dream Season Continue?
Andrew Luck wasn't able to win the Heisman his final season at Stanford, but just about everything has gone right for him since then. As the No. 1 overall pick, Luck was tasked with helping the Colts get back to prominence. However, no one could have expected it this soon.
Luck's role in the Colts offense is unique compared to those of fellow rookies Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson in theirs. Luck is asked to go downfield more often and is tasked with making higher-risk throws with less help around him.
He's come out on top.
Will those risks continue to pay off? Will the Colts continue to ride Luck's arm to victory?
Keys for the Indianapolis Colts
As much as Luck has been the reason for the Colts' success, they'll need to be balanced to beat the Ravens. Statistically, the Ravens D is way down this season, but schematically, it is still very sound. Now healthy, it will be a big test for the Colts offense.
Who wins on Sunday afternoon?
It's also important that Luck pick his spots very carefully. Ed Reed isn't the player he once was, but he's still awfully scary with the ball in the air. If Luck thinks that he can just loft it up and Reggie Wayne will come down with it, he'll have another thing coming.
Scheme aside, I think the Colts will have to battle themselves to some extent. They've ridden the emotional wave well this season, but so have the Ravens. This game being in Baltimore is going to make that battle all the more important as the Colts try to keep their legs under them and not play outside of themselves.
Keys for the Baltimore Ravens
Things are going to be tougher for the Ravens offensively than first glance might reveal.
As bad as the Colts have been on defense this season, they're hitting their stride to some extent, and the pass rush is looking like a legitimate piece to the overall success of the team. For a Ravens squad with so little pass-blocking ability on the perimeter, that could be a huge problem.
The Ravens are built to be a vertical passing attack, and they may need to eschew that if they want to make a run in the playoffs. They'll also need to run, a lot, especially against the Colts.
Defensively, it is all about taking advantage of mistakes. The Colts are a young team and will make mistakes. If the Ravens don't make them pay (by turning errant bounces into turnovers and turnovers into points), this game is going to be a lot more difficult than the Ravens would like.
Bold Prediction: Ray Lewis Has Double-Digit Tackles
Lewis has only had two double-digit tackle games this season and hasn't played since mid-October. Yet if there's one player one shouldn't bet against in this matchup, it's Lewis. There will be no more games in Baltimore for this legend, and he's sure to fight through every block and scrape through traffic to collect tackle after tackle.
Player of the Game: Ray Rice
The Colts are ranked 29th against the run for a reason. They lack "beef" up the middle both on the line and in the interior of the linebacking corps. This will be a huge focus of the upcoming offseason, and it should be a huge reasons the Ravens win.
Look for Rice to pace Baltimore to victory with over 100 yards on the ground, and he could do some serious damage through the air as well.
He'll also get some extra opportunities with the Ravens defense taking advantage of the Colts' youth and inexperience.
Final Score: Ravens 28, Colts 17
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.