What's Next for Baltimore Ravens After Wild Card Victory over Colts?

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What's Next for Baltimore Ravens After Wild Card Victory over Colts?
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Now that the Baltimore Ravens and their inspirational leader, Ray Lewis, have extended their season for at least one more week, the team has little time to waste as it prepares for its matchup against the top-seeded Denver Broncos.

The Ravens, who stumbled into the playoffs losing four of their last five games, looked like they drew inspiration from Lewis' return to the lineup and his imminent retirement.

Lewis, for his part, made 13 tackles Sunday. And he was on the field for the final play of the game—as a fullback no less—a kneel-down, before he was mobbed by teammates.

While the Ravens live to play another day, Sunday's performance leaves many questions unanswered: Can Joe Flacco rebound from a mediocre performance against an average defense? Can Lewis and the Ravens limit Peyton Manning and the Broncos? Can Ray Rice recover from a fumble-plagued outing?

 

What I liked

Despite a pedestrian outing statistically (12-of-23 for 282 yards), Flacco delivered when he had to, finding Anquan Boldin for receptions of 46 and 50 yards, and he had an 18-yard TD in the corner of the end zone that put Baltimore up 24-9.

Boldin was the star of Sunday's game, catching five passes for 145 yards and a touchdown and helping the Ravens overcome a sketchy running game that got stuffed by the Colts, save for a single 43-yard jaunt by Bernard Pierce.

The Ravens defense, not what it once was, dominated the Colts all day, chasing Andrew Luck out of the pocket and forcing him into hasty decisions that often ended badly. Luck got his yards, but he never found the end zone.

Baltimore's special teams were helped out by Pro Bowler Jacoby Jones, who gained 60 yards on kickoff returns and 57 yards bringing back punts and helping Baltimore win the battle of field position most of the day. 

 

Room for Improvement

Baltimore's offense struggled despite scoring 24 points, bailed out in great part by Jones' returns. If the Ravens expect to hang with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, Flacco is somehow going to have to improve his accuracy against a passing defense that ranked No. 3 in total yards and sacked the quarterback 52 times this season, more than any team in the playoffs. He barely completed 50 percent of his passes against the Colts.

The Ravens running game was efficient—if not spectacular—Sunday, especially with Ray Rice losing two fumbles, the first of the year for the typically sure-handed Rice. The veteran running back, who gained over 1,200 yards this season, needs to get a grip (literally), or the Ravens will surely be saying goodbye next week.

While it's hard to pick apart a unit that held Andrew Luck and co. without a touchdown, the Ravens did give up 419 yards to the Colts, much of it to Luck, who gained 288 yards in the air and 35 on the ground.

 

Looking to the Broncos 

The good news is that Peyton Manning is no Andrew Luck, which is to say that Manning is not going to keep Baltimore off balance with the threat of running out of the pocket. Baltimore could actually get more pressure on Manning than Luck (no, I won't be offended if you write me off as crazy for that statement). 

The bad news is that the Broncos have steamrolled into the playoffs, winning 11 straight and getting better every week. Their passing defense is playing better than any other unit in the league and is tied for the most sacks with 52. No team is playing better on both sides of the ball than Denver. It will take a perfect Ravens performance to secure a victory.

The Broncos beat Baltimore 34-17 just three weeks ago. That was Denver's second win against a playoff team this year (the other coming against the Bengals). Much of Denver's win streak came against also-rans and it will be interesting to see how the battle-tested Ravens respond next week with their season on the line. 

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