Finally, the Colts are ready for start their second season.
After endless debate over resting starters, the time for rest is over. The most important game of the season (so far) begins Saturday night.
The Colts enter Saturday riding a seven-game winning streak over the Ravens, including a 15-6 victory at Baltimore during their run to Super Bowl XLI. There's no reason to think the Colts don't have a great chance of making it eight in a row.
However, the matchups suggest that Saturday's game will be more like the 17-15 game earlier this year than the 31-3 blowout during the 2008 season.
Colts' passing offense vs. Ravens' pass defense
At the beginning of 2008, Peyton Manning came into the season on the wrong side of 30 and struggling to return from knee surgery. Since then, Manning has played his best football of his career. He's won his second consecutive MVP award, which gives him an NFL record four overall. Manning is blessed with a great mix of veterans (Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai) and young players (Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Donald Brown) at his disposal.
I would imagine the Colts' game plan will be centered around spreading the Ravens' defense out and working the middle of the field with Clark and Collie while taking some shots deep to Wayne and Garcon on the outside.
The Ravens defense will not bend easily, though. Only once all season have the Ravens allowed more than 300 yards passing. Manning fell one yard short of 300 in the matchup earlier in the season. The Colts showed they could move the ball, but had trouble finishing drives.
The Colts will have to limit their turnovers as well, having thrown two interceptions in the November contest. Baltimore has Ed Reed healthy, which should give them a boost in the secondary.
The key for the Ravens will be getting pressure on Manning. If the Colts can give Manning enough time, Indianapolis will have some success moving the ball.
Ravens' passing offense vs. Colts' pass defense
This may be the key matchup of the game. Everyone knows the Colts can pass and the Ravens can run, but quarterback Joe Flacco will need to be more productive than he was against the Patriots if Baltimore hopes to pull their second upset of the playoffs.
The trouble is Flacco doesn't have a lot of options in the passing game. Their leading receiver on the season was Ray Rice. The seemingly ageless Derrick Mason gained over 1000 yards, but is more of a possession receiver than a consistent deep threat.
The Colts have one of the league's most underrated pass defenses. While they rank only fourth in yardage allowed, it's the yards per attempt that show you how well the Colts' secondary plays. The Colts are fourth in the league, allowing just 5.5 per attempt.
The Ravens may complete passes, but yards after the catch will be a premium. Flacco will need to pass in this game but chances are slim that they jump out to another 24-0 lead and can lean completely on their rushing offense.
Colts' rushing offense vs. Ravens run defense.
The Ravens run defense isn't quite as strong as it has been in years past. Six times this season they've given up over 100 yards rushing, their worst year since 2005. Still, they have only given up 3.4 yards per rush this year, best in the league.
Considering the Colts only can 3.5 yards per run, it's not a good sign that the Colts will do much on the ground. The Colts gained a respectable 98 yards in the teams' first meeting this year.
Realistically, that's all the Colts need to do, be respectable in the run game. They need to do enough just to keep Manning's play action ability working. That'll be a tough task against a fired up Ravens' defense.
Ravens' rushing offense vs. Colts run defense.
Even before the Colts' reserves gave up back-to-back 200-yard games to the runners from the Jets and Bills, the Colts run defense had shown some signs of weakness. In the second match up against every divisional opponent, the Colts surrendered at least 120 yards rushing.
That's not a good sign considering the Colts face a very productive run combo in Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. The tandem combined for over 1800 yards and 19 touchdowns during the regular season. They followed that success with an impressive 234 yard effort against New England.
The Ravens' game plan is simple. Run, run, run some more, and maybe pass occasionally to keep things honest.
The Colts will have to limit Rice's ability to make big runs. Although the Colts defense has given up yardage, they have improved on their ability to limit the long gain. Rice's longest run in the first game against Indianapolis was only 14 yards.
If the Ravens can grab an early lead, expect to see a lot of Rice and McGahee as Baltimore attempts to play keep away with the Colts offense.
Matt Stover will handle kicking duties for the Colts during the playoffs and has been more than an adequate replacement for Adam Vinatieri. The Ravens have employed two kickers as well this year, Steven Hauschka and Billy Cundiff.
Cundiff replaced Hauschka but hasn't been much more successful than him, hitting barely 70 percent of his field goal attempts. The Ravens will hope this game doesn't come down to a field goal.
In the return game, neither team has an electrifying return man. The goal for both will be to maintain solid kick coverage and keep the other's offense in poor field position.
There's no denying that John Harbaugh has been wildly successful as head coach of the Ravens. Since taking the reins of the team, he's guided them to two consecutive playoff berths and a 3-1 record in the postseason.
On the other side, there's the untested Jim Caldwell. He's handled the pressure of the regular season well. Well, until you can argue, the perfect season debate. Still, with Manning at the helm for an entire game, Caldwell has yet to lose. His adjustments have brought the Colts back from the brink in several games this year. With a talented staff around him, Caldwell is not likely to crack under pressure.
The Colts have owned the series lately, but the Ravens have usually been a tough out for them. I'd expect no different this weekend. In the end, I trust Manning and the Colts' offense to make more plays than the Ravens' offense. Resting talk is put to bed for good as the Colts advance to the AFC Championship game.
Colts 24, Ravens 17
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