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AFC Divisional Playoff Preview: Ravens at Colts

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It's the divisional round and the real playoffs are finally about to begin.  It's been a long three weeks as the Colts are coming off of their much needed, and much welcomed bye week healthy, rested, and ready to go.  Their opponent: The mighty Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens are coming into the divisional round riding high after their 592556-14 drubbing of the New England Patriots in Foxboro.  That game was over before the Ravens even suited up.  The Patriots looked completely lost during the opening moments of the game, and for the most part I felt bad for them.  Ok, not really.  The only reason I felt bad was because of the massive hit my ego took for picking those hacks to win the game.  What the hell was I thinking?  I knew better.  The Patriots have played like utter crap against anything that resembles an NFL caliber team this season, but yet for some reason I fell into that trap of thinking, "Well it's the Patriots and they don't lose at home in the playoffs blah blah blah."  Ugh.  After coming to grips with what I had done, I began to thoroughly enjoy watching Tom Terrible jog off of the field after being strip-sacked, intercepted, and then intercepted again.  Much to my amazement though, he didn't bust out his patented temper tantrum, screaming at anyone who would listen.  Maybe he finally realized that he isn't the Superman everyone makes him out to be.  It sucks not having a great defense huh Tommy boy?

To put things into perspective, the past 4 years of Tom Brady's career has been down right brutal.

In the 2006 AFC Championship game, a game that will forever live in infamy, the Patriots were victim to arguably the greatest comeback in playoff history.  We're very familiar with this game, as the Colts fought tooth and nail to remove that constant thorn in their side that was the Patriots in the playoffs.

The following season, a few key free agent acquisitions proved to be the key in elevating that Patriots team to a level of greatness that no one had seen in 35 years.  The 2007 Patriots broke the 1999 Vikings' record of most points scored in a season, Tom Brady broke Peyton Manning's single season passing touchdown record, Randy Moss broke Jerry Rice's single season receiving touchdown record, and they finished an astounding 16-0 in the regular season.  They accomplished these feats and were seemingly poised to win their 4th Super Bowl of this decade, and be labeled as the greatest team in NFL history.  That Patriots team had every necessary ingredient to go 19-0, but due to the constant pass rush by the Giants' defensive line in the Super Bowl, Tom Brady was unable to stay off of his knees and subsequently blew the game.  The biggest choke job in sports history.

2008 wasn't any better.  Tom Brady didn't even make it out of the first quarter of opening day before his season was done.  He tore both his ACL and MCL in his left knee, ending his season.  I will admit I felt bad for him when he injured his knee.  Well ok, not really.  I was just pissed that I wasted a draft pick on him in my fantasy team.  Even though I happened to draft Matt Ryan that year and went on to win the championship that year, I was still miffed that Brady was done.  Never, ever, draft a player coming off of a career high.  Trust me, it won't end well.

And then of course there's the 2009 season.  While recovering from his knee injury, the Patriots went through many ups and downs.  Their defense was completely revamped and was exposed in many games.  The offense however was a carbon copy of the 2007 season from a personnel standpoint.  Many members of the media laughed at the notion that Tom Brady would return this season and be hindered by his knee injury.  Many of us who are intune with reality were well aware of what Brady was going to experience after watching Peyton Manning struggle for weeks after two off season knee surgeries prior to the 2008 season.  Even though the Colts finished the season on a 9 game winning streak and finished the season with a 12-4 record, the Patriots suffered the same fate as the Colts and were bounced from the wild card game.

Though I'm sure we all expected to see the Patriots' season end sometime before the Super Bowl, I don't think anyone saw this collapse coming even though we should have.

There is good news however.  The 2009 Patriots accomplished a feat that no other team has ever done in NFL history.  Over the past 6 seasons, the Patriots have ended their season in every way imaginable with regard to the playoffs.  In 2004, they won the Super Bowl.  In 2005 they lost in the divisional round to the Broncos.  In 2006 they lost the AFC championship game to the Colts.  In 2007 they lost the Super Bowl to the Giants.  In 2008 they missed the playoffs.  And finally, in 2009, the Ravens dominated them in the wild card game.

Congratulations New England Patriots!  Even in moments of utter failure you are still able to set the bar for the rest of the league.  Enjoy the rest of the postseason at home. (round of applause)

Alright, enough Patriots talk.

As I mentioned in my preview of the wild card games, the only way the Ravens were going to win that game against the Patriots was by pressuring Brady and force feeding the ball to Ray Rice.  Mission accomplished.  Sadly for the Ravens, they're going to need a completely different game plan to be able to beat the Colts.

Now, before I get too far into this breakdown, allow me a moment to dispel one of, if not the most annoying myth surrounding the Colts and the league in general.

From now on, if you hear anyone claim that the Colts are "soft," or any team for that matter, you can presume that this person is probably clueless about what they are talking about.  Just because the Colts aren't the biggest team in the league does not mean they are soft.  That also doesn't mean they don't play "physical" football.  If you think otherwise then you're just grasping at straws.  Football by its very nature is "physical," so I don't want to hear this crap about how the Ravens can out physical any team in the league, let alone the Colts.  They've tried that stuff in the past and the only thing the Ravens have to show for it is 2-7 head-to-head record against the Colts.  For the sake of strengthening my argument, both the Ravens' wins came in the two worst seasons in the Peyton Manning era.  How's that for physical?

That's not to say that the Ravens can't be a scary team.  As the Raiders proved earlier this season, if you overlook an opponent it will come back to bite you.  Even if the Colts were to face the 0-16 Lions this Saturday, anything could happen, so you prepare accordingly.

The difference between the Patriots and the Colts is that the Colts have Peyton Manning and the Colts' defense is fast.  Like, really really fast.

You won't see Peyton Manning being hassled all game long by this Ravens defense.  Despite the woes of the offensive line in the running game, their ability to pass block is second to none.  This is due to the type of personnel the Colts have filling those positions.  Interestingly enough, the Colts' linemen in are direct contrast to the Baltimore Ravens' linemen.  The Ravens possess bigger, more powerful bruising run blockers, while the Colts utilize more agile pass blockers to support their pass happy offense.  Neither is at an advantage in this contest because they both do extremely well in their respective offenses.

Where the advantage starts to show it's head is in the ability to put up points. 

The Ravens no doubt will try to grind out long drives and keep Peyton on the bench, working the clock like they did against the Patriots.  As we've seen from many games this season, Peyton doesn't need that much time to stab you in the heart with a rusty spoon.  The Ravens can play the clock game all they want, but they better make damn sure they finish their drives with touchdowns, otherwise you might as well save yourself the humiliation and anguish by not showing up.

The counter to the Ravens' attempts to pound the ball all game, the Colts should be sticking an extra defender in the box, using their speed to pursue to the ball and prevent any large gains from being made in the running game.  By putting an extra defender in the box, the outside defensive backs will be forced to play more man coverage on the Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton.  Luckily for the Colts, the man himself Bill Polian, just so happened to draft a stud cover corner in the 3rd round this season.  Not only that, he signed a rookie free agent as well who has proven to be no slouch himself in coverage.

Peyton aside, the key players this weekend for the Colts are the corners.  If they can contain the Ravens' receivers on their own allowing the Colts to defend the run first, then I see no reason why the Colts couldn't keep the Ravens under 17 points in this game.

As far as the Colts offense, it's all about efficiency.  Make every possession count.  There cannot be any dumb mistakes because this Ravens team is a very opportunistic bunch, as I'm sure you witnessed during their week 11 matchup.

Looking back at the regular season, all of the comeback wins and clutch performances, you can see a story take shape.  The moral of that story is that this team doesn't quit.  No matter the point deficit, lack of time of possession, the number of turnovers, it seems like this team is just so resilient that they can over come anything and rise to the occasion when it calls for it.

Unlike the past two seasons, injuries will not play a major role in the outcome of this game.  The key players for this Colts team are healthy and well rested.  There are no excuses this year and I expect to see nothing less than a stellar performance all the way around.

However, in the unlikely and unfortunate event that the Colts don't win this game, the world is not over.  Despite ridiculous claims that the Colts have to win this game, I'll be no more upset this season than I was last season, or even the season before that.  As far as I'm concerned, it's Super Bowl or bust for the Colts every season.

The team needs our support, and we as fans should do the right thing and support them by screaming until our lungs burst.  Whether you are watching the game from home or the front row, think positive thoughts and positive things will happen.

Go Colts!