Regardless of the outcome of Saturday's AFC Divisional matchup, the Baltimore Ravens already have reason to feel good about their 2009 season. They went from a relatively one-dimensional attack on offense in previous years to becoming one of the most balanced teams on both sides of the ball in the NFL.
Strong quarterback play had frequently been a missing link from Baltimore's offensive scheme since the team rose from the ashes of the former Cleveland Browns back in 1996, but second-year QB Joe Flacco's marked improvement has not only made the Ravens a postseason team, but one with the fortitude to win a playoff game in a hostile environment on the road.
Given their traditional brand of smashmouth football coupled with their signature stifling defense, the Ravens have to be thrilled with the play of their sophomore signal-caller. Having thrown for 3,647 yards to go along with 21 touchdown passes against only 13 interceptions this season, Flacco has demonstrated that while Baltimore can smack opponents in the mouth via the ground game, he is talented enough to keep defensive secondaries honest.
Of course, those who watched Flacco for the first time last week in the Ravens' Wild Card game versus the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., may not agree with the previous assessment.
Although Baltimore Joe only passed for 34 yards while completing a measly four of ten passes thrown, the Ravens were able to rely on their perennial ball-control offense to maintain a safe lead over the Patriots after Baltimore led by 24 upon the conclusion of the first quarter. After the Blackbirds got their insurmountable lead, all Flacco had to do for the rest of the game was hike the ball, not fumble the snap, and hand it off to the talented trio of Ravens running backs.
During last Sunday's AFC Wild Card game, anyone unfamiliar with Baltimore's offensive scheme who watched the first play from scrimmage, learned in 17 seconds what Raven fans have known all year: Ray Rice, who ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday's game, is a beast when he touches the football.
Willis McGahee, who amassed 14 touchdowns this year, also chipped in with 20 carries and a touchdown against a New England defense, who played like they never left the locker room. Even Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain contributed to the scoring by finding paydirt on a one-yard plunge. The Patriots had no answer for Baltimore's overwhelming rush attack, and the Colts, next up on the playoff schedule for the Ravens, may not have a solution, either.
As Indianapolis carries the 24th-ranked run defense (126.5 yards per game) to go along with their 32nd ranked rushing offense, the Colts are the epitome of a finesse team. While one would reason that power trumps finesse in a sport as physical as football, Indianapolis has owned Baltimore in recent years, having beaten the Ravens seven consecutive times dating back to 2002. That said, Baltimore carries both momentum as well as a swagger as they look toward their Divisional Round game against Pro Bowlers Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Robert Mathis, and Dwight Freeney. Interestingly, the Colts are 0-3 in playoff games following a bye week.
While Indy's speedy pass rush is the most feared aspect of their defense, Baltimore held the Colts without a sack when they faced off on November 22 in a 17-15 Indianapolis victory back at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Much of the success of the Ravens' offense this season should be attributed to the stellar play of their offensive line, led by tackles Jared Gaither and rookie Michael Oher. These two linemen will have their hands full with a well rested Freeney and Mathis fired up to take Flacco down.
If the young Raven QB is to have more success than he did last week (which isn't saying a lot), he'll have to find both steady veteran wideout Derrick Mason and playmaking tight end Todd Heap early and often to not only prevent the Colts from stacking eight defenders in the box to stop the run, but to also give Flacco some confidence and rhythm in the passing game.
If the Ravens hope to upset the Colts on Saturday evening, they will need the guidance of their spiritual leader who has also served as the face of the franchise since their Super Bowl run from ten years ago.
Ray Lewis, recently selected to his 11th Pro Bowl, has been playing middle linebacker at an elite level this season, and shows no signs of slowing down at 34 years young. The chess match between veterans Lewis and Manning should be an intriguing game-within-the-game, as each player is notorious for calling multiple audibles before the ball is snapped.
As previously mentioned, the history between the current and former inhabitants of Baltimore is rather one-sided. However, the Colts will help to ensure an eighth consecutive matchup victory if Manning can maintain a double-digit lead on the Ravens, who don't excel at playing from behind.
While Flacco has made great strides this season, he has a long way to go before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Peyton Manning, as he doesn't give defensive coordinators ulcers quite like Manning does. On the other hand, if Baltimore controls time of possession, and can keep the Colts' high-octane offense off the field, perhaps power can trump finesse on Saturday Night.