Previewing Week 16: Colts at Ravens
It’s been a frustrating season for many Ravens fans. The offense has been completely inept for much of the season, and even though the defense has been very good, there have still been moments like the week 14 game in Pittsburgh that make one question if it is all just a mirage. It’s hard to be overly invested as a fan when the team has disappointed in every big game over the past 3 seasons. Talking heads around the NFL are quick to point out the Ravens have only 2 wins over teams with .500 or better records, and one of those wins was over the Aaron Rodger-less Packers. They have yet to beat a team that is playoff-bound, and with the hapless Colts and Bengals left on the schedule, they won’t have a chance to do so either. All of these points are accurate of course, but there is a counter-argument to be made; the Ravens have not only beaten the teams they are supposed to beat, but they have utterly dominated lesser opponents this year.
There are a lot of analytics that suggest the quality of a team is tightly linked to the games that aren’t close. Games that are won or lost by 1 score or less are often times “coin flips”. One weird play or bad call by an official can easily dictate the outcome of a game. Games that aren’t close are a better barometer of just how good a team can be, and when we look at the Ravens we see a team that is much more frequently dominating other teams than being dominated. Only two losses have for the Ravens have been by greater than one score while the Ravens have beaten their opponents by greater than 1 score in every win but one, Monday night against the Texans when they could have scored again but instead took a knee at the Houston 20 yard line to end the game. The Ravens point differential on the season is an impressive +89, 3rd best in the AFC. This is big part of the reason why the Ravens are very highly rated by analytics such as Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which ranks them as the 4th best team in the NFL and best in the AFC ahead of teams like New England, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. This may seem absurd to a lot of fans and it’s hard to imagine the Ravens would be favored against any of those teams in the playoffs. That said, the Ravens have been playing a lot better as of late and the way the team battled in Pittsburgh does suggest they are capable of hanging with any team in the NFL.
Getting back to the here and now, all of this talk is meaningless if the Ravens don’t take care of business these next two weeks at home. Their first challenge will be the Colts this Saturday, and the Ravens are almost two TD favorites in this match-up. The Colts are injury-riddled and poorly coached, and it is hard to imagine them putting up much fight against a Ravens team that has everything on the line.
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One of the major reasons why the Colts have struggled so much this season is the loss of star QB Andrew Luck for the season. The Colts traded for 2nd year QB Jacoby Brissett from the Patriots right before the start of the season, and he has been their starter from week 2 on. Brissett is a big and athletic QB that has some impressive tools. He learned behind Ton Brady for a year in New England and he has not been a complete disaster for the Colts. That said, he is still a young QB and prone to mistakes, and this has borne itself out throughout the season. Brissett has taken more sacks than any other QB in the NFL; part of this is due to below average offensive line play, but he also holds onto the ball longer than he should trying to make something happen instead of throwing the ball away. To make matters worse for the Colts, they just placed their starting Center Ryan Kelly on Injured Reserve and will also be without #2 WR Donte Moncrief who is out with an ankle injury.
The Colts will likely have to lean on their running game led by the ageless Frank Gore while also looking to take some shots downfield to WR T.Y. Hilton who has been a big play threat throughout his career and needs to be accounted for on every play. I would expect Dean Pees to give Hilton a lot of attention in his coverage schemes as the Colts don’t have many other real threats on offense. Pees can probably afford to play somewhat conservatively on defense relying mostly on the 4 man pass rush with a few disguised blitzes thrown in on 3rd and long situations. The Ravens have used a lot of their dime (6 defensive backs) package on defense recently, but this may be a week where we see more base defense if the Colts try to slow the game down by leaning in the run game. Last week against the Browns the Ravens defensive front did an excellent job of pressuring the QB with Terrell Suggs, Matt Judon and Za’Darius Smith all showing prowess with their pass-rush abilities. Brissett, who has taken 49 sacks on the season, may be in for a long game if he is forced to drop back and pass the ball 40+ times.
When the Ravens are on offense, they should be able to move the ball against a Colts defense that has given up the 3rd most total yards to opposing teams this season. The Colts also have the 2nd worst scoring defense and will be playing without former Ravens CB Rashaan Melvin, who has been their top cover corner this season. The Colts have not really been able to stop the run or the pass this year, so I doubt there is any particular weakness that Marty Mornhinweg will look to attack although we could see Flacco taking a few shots downfield against a depleted Colts secondary. The Ravens would be smart to just control the game on the ground with Alex Collins and the rushing attack, especially with Jeremy Maclin looking like he may not be able to go this week.
On paper, this is a game where the Ravens are the far superior team. They need this win to guarantee a spot in the playoffs, and the team is relatively healthy compared to earlier in the season. It may not be a complete blowout, and I don’t see coach Harbaugh running up the score on Chuck Pagano’s team, but in the end it the Ravens should win by two scores, 24 – 10.