Well, I’m glad we got that final pre-season game out of the way. Now, it’s time to gear up for the second season, the one that really matters- the NFL playoffs.
I’m planning on giving a breakdown of the Ravens’ opponent over the week but I figured I get something out quick tonight to simply wet the appetite.
Since the Ravens second squad could not get past the Bengals today (not that it would have mattered since both the Broncos and Pats cruised to easy wins) they will check in with the #4 seed and play host next Sunday at 1 p.m. to the Indianapolis Colts.
There are a host of connections and storylines for this game as Jim Irsay loads up the Mayflower and brings his club back to Mobtown. But there’s plenty of time to talk about those later. For now, here’s five things to focus on:
1) Andrew Luck. He’s a huge reason why the Colts are back in the playoffs after only one season of ineptitude. These Colts need to throw the ball in order to win, as their running attack is average at best with Vick Ballard (736 yds. 1 TD) as their leading rusher. He’s shattered rookie records for attempts, yards in a season and tied the record for most game winning drives by a first-year player. His pass length average (10.2 yds.) is also tops in the league and 5 of his 8 touchdown throws of more than twenty yards have been to speedster T.Y. Hilton, so he isn’t afraid to toss the ball around or test defenses deep. Even though most put him as outperforming Peyton Manning’s rookie campaign he can still be forced into mistakes. He’s thrown 18 interceptions against 21 touchdowns, fumbled 10 times (lost 5) and has been sacked 40 times. The first step in beating the Colts Sunday will be to attempt to confuse and fluster the young signal caller and force a few turnovers.
2) Reggie Wayne. After a disappointing 2011 Wayne has reestablished himself as one of the league’s most productive receivers. He has quickly become Luck’s favorite target with 102 receptions for 1,355 yards and 5 touchdowns. The next closest receiver is Donnie Avery with 60 catches. Baltimore will need to decide how they wish to limit Wayne on Sunday perhaps employing some similar tactics as they have to A.J. Green to take him out of the offense. In one of the Colts losses to the Texans (29-17) in Week Fifteen Houston held Wayne to season lows in receptions and yards. Take away Luck’s top target and force him to spread the ball around the make others beat you.
3) Colts Defense. This is where the Ravens need to take advantage because they simply aren’t very good. Their point differential is -30. None of this season’s playoff teams have a negative in that category. They are ranked 22nd in points allowed (24.7), are one of the league’s worst against the run (139.9), have only generated 16 turnovers (10 int, 4 ffumbles) and don’t get to the quarterback consistently (28.0 sacks). I can see a heavy dose of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce which would allow Joe Flacco to take shots down field off play-action. The offense will need to pile up points and allow the home crowd to do what it does best.
4) Robert Mathis. The Colts other Pro Bowl selection has been able to adapt to Chuck Pagano’s aggressive 3-4 defense. He’s the sack leader with 8.0 and needs to accounted for in the blocking and protection schemes. He only has 30 combined tackles though which should tell you a little bit about how his role has changed on this defense. Mathis’ running mate Dwight Freeney has struggled with injuries and production and may be playing his last game as a Colt. He made the Pro Bowl as an alternate but it was based more on name recognition than anything. The old guard stars of the Colts defense could still make plays but they aren’t what they used to be in a new defense.
5) Chuckstrong. The Colts have THE story of the playoffs for those fans whose teams are setting tee times right now. (Pittsburgh I’m looking at you) Indy is riding high on emotion right now and I wasn’t at all shocked to see them dominate a reeling Texans team at home on the day of Pagano’s return to the sidelines. The locker room celebration was a sight to behold full of joy, love and dancing for their coach. You’ll see plenty of prognosticators pick against a Ravens team that lost 4 out 5 down the stretch (should we even count today?) over the next few days. Why not? People want to see this feel-good story continue. I think the Ravens made the right move resting players today because they’ll need all hands on deck for a playoff run. There is no more experienced team in the NFL in the post season than Baltimore who is the only team to be in the playoffs five consecutive seasons. Pagano’s Colts went all out to win today even though it meant nothing to their seeding. Have they “shot their load” in a meaningless game? This time next week we will see who’s Week Seventeen strategy was most prudent for post-season success.