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NFL AFC Wild Card Preview: Indianapolis Colts At Baltimore Ravens

Pagano vs. Caldwell, Ray Lewis retiring, and apparently the Colts used to play their home games in Baltimore. The Playoffs are here, and the Colts hit the road to face the Ravens. Can the magical season continue?

Larry French

This is where the fun begins, right?

Our Indianapolis Colts, fresh off a nine-game turn-around from a season ago and a pantsing of the AFC South Champion Texans last week, travel to Baltimore Sunday afternoon to take on the AFC North Champion Ravens. I feel like these two cities are linked by something, but can't quite put my finger on it...

The Ravens started out the season a red-hot 9-2, capped off by an amazing 4th and 29 conversion against the Chargers that helped to force OT, where they eventually won the game. It's been downhill ever since, losing four of their last five games. The schedule wasn't kind to them, facing three playoff teams in those final five weeks, plus playing the Steelers and Giants (the only team they beat). Also, in fairness, they did not play many of their starters last week in Cincinnati, so losing there isn't that big of an issue either.

The whole sitting/playing starters thing will be put to a test this week, as the Colts didn't let off the gas pedal last week in a game that was meaningless to their playoff seeding. We know that the Colts used to mail in those late-season games that had no bearing on their Playoff status, and I think it only hurt them once definitely (2005) and once maybe (2007), while playing all the way through helped in 2006, but did nothing for 2008 and Mike Scifres. I'm not a big believer in momentum, especially from game-to-game, but I'm willing to listen if the Football Gods want to shine down on the Colts this season.

The big storyline this week is Raven's LB Ray Lewis announcing that he'll be retiring at the end of the season, something many suspected earlier this season. Lewis is expected to return Sunday from a torn tricep muscle, which has caused him to miss the last ten games. This could go one of two ways for the Ravens: they could want to tear through brick walls, come out inspired, and lay the hammer to the Colts, something they've done to several teams this season, or they could come out trying too hard and under a lot of pressure, tighten up, and not play well because of it. I think we all know which of these choices we want to see.

Overall these teams have met 12 times in history, with the Colts holding a 9-3 record, which included eight straight wins before last season, and a perfect 2-0 in the Playoffs, both in years the Colts made the Super Bowl (interesting...). In 2009 the Colts Defense corralled Ray Rice and the Ravens Offense, only giving up 3 points in a 20-3 beatdown in the Divisional Round in Indianapolis. The other game in 2006, also in the Divisional Round, might be the best performance by an Offense without scoring a TD in the history of the NFL, a 15-6 Colts win in Baltimore. That Ravens Defense was insanely good, Adam Vinatieri was money, Dominic Rhodes was spectacular on the final drive that ate up over seven minutes of clock, and Peyton Manning found Dallas Clark on a 3rd Down play that I still don't know how the ball got in there for the catch. I might have to re-watch that game Saturday.

Want more storylines? Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano will be going up against the team where he worked for the previous four seasons, including being their Defensive Coordinator in 2011. Ravens now-Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell was the Colts previous Head Coach, and had been on staff since 2002. My gut tells me Pagano will be able to offer more insight into their opponent than Caldwell, as the Colts have completely new schemes in 2012 than what they played last season, while the Ravens scheme-wise are very similar. How much of an advantage that is will be determined Sunday, but in a game where every little edge counts, I think the Colts have a slight one here.

Ready for some numbers and keys to the game? Let's dive in:

Statistical Comparison between the Colts and Ravens (Adjusted):

Statistic Colts Ravens
Offense Rank Defense Rank Offense Rank Defense Rank
DSR 71.4% 13 74.0% 31 69.5% 14 66.5% 7
ANPY/A 5.057 22 6.626 28 5.739 15 5.243 12
Turnovers 1.83 20 1.03 30 1.21 5 1.56 22
Yds/Drive 30.64 13 35.74 32 30.76 12 27.76 9
ToP/Drive 2:51.0 8 2:53.0 27 2:30.0 26 2:41.0 14
Yds/Play 4.952 24 6.048 31 5.338 15 4.926 7
Orange Zone Eff 53.1% 20 57.8% 25 56.3% 14 54.4% 15
First Downs/Drive 1.93 4 1.93 31 1.68 16 1.62 11
3rd/4th Down 42.9% 7 39.9% 20 37.5% 19 36.6% 6
Avg Start Pos 27.1 32 27.5 3 29.8 18 29.8 13
3 and Outs 3.19 7 2.77 32 3.75 17 4.80 2
RZ Eff 67.7% 13 65.5% 18 63.0% 20 59.7% 8
Plays/Drive 6.209 3 5.913 29 5.677 12 5.585 14
Penalty Yds / Play 0.733 6 1.215 1 1.054 32 0.849 14
RB Success 42.0% 23 42.5% 10 43.9% 17 48.9% 31
Yds/Carry 3.75 24 4.76 30 4.25 12 4.01 12
Overall 14 32 15 10

Keys to the Game:

  • We'll start on Third/Fourth Downs, where both teams' relative rankings are very similar. The Colts Off. and Ravens Def. are quite good, while the opposites are slightly below average. This also features the best Offense on 3rd and 8+ yards (Colts - 35.3%) against the best Defense on 3rd and 8+ yards (Ravens - 13.5%). This will be a huge factor in the game. I do love best-on-best matchups though.
  • Another stat where the two teams seem fairly even on both sides is in the Orange/Red Zone. However, if you look at the past month (5 weeks), there is a big advantage to the Colts, as they are Top 5 on both Offense and Defense in the Orange Zone, and 3rd/6th in the Red Zone, while the Ravens go 13th/23rd in Orange Zone, 19th/28th in Red Zone. If the Colts have any chance of winning, they'll need 7 points when they get close, and they can only give up 3 points when the Ravens get close. If the opposite occurs, the Colts won't have much of a shot.
  • Turnovers have been a big part of the Colts season this year, but they've held them in check over the final 3 weeks, only turning it over one time, and it wasn't by Andrew Luck. Surprisingly the Ravens Defense ranks 22nd at Turnovers, but as we've seen this season it doesn't matter too much who the Colts make those mistakes against. Ed Reed will be lurking in the secondary. I'd be shocked if he doesn't get the ball in his hands at some point.
  • On the flip side the Ravens Offense has taken care of the ball really well this season, while the Colts have finally gotten out of the NFL basement when it comes to forcing turnovers. I won't expect any, but if they come it'll be a big bonus.
  • As a fantasy owner of Ray Rice this season, I railed on the fact ex-Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron seemingly forgot he was their best weapon, and they lost game because of it. Then against the Broncos a few weeks ago, Caldwell's first game as OC, Rice didn't have a touch on 3rd Down. Containing Rice will be big for the Colts Defense, but there's a chance the Ravens may do it for the Colts by not getting him the ball. One can hope, right?
  • The Ravens Run Defense is above average in terms of Yards per Carry, right around 4 per carry. However, they've given up one of the worst success rates in the NFL, which means the Colts might be able to pound 4-5 yards every play, and not go away from it if they can't break one. Taking pressure off of Luck would be nice.
  • The Ravens are the most penalized team per play in the NFL, while the Colts benefit from having the most penalty yards per play against them in the NFL. Look for a few of these that might change the outcome of the game. Not often this plays a role, but it might here.
  • The Ravens, much like the Colts, are a completely different team at home than they are on the road. They rank in the top 5 in a slew of categories, including six of the top 8 above, and all of the top 4. We know all about the Colts struggles on the road this year.

I think the Colts match-up pretty well with the Ravens, and have a chance to win some key battles where they have a definite advantage. However, I think it's a case where all those things need to fall into place for them to win, while the Ravens will just have to win one of those battles, and with all the other advantages they have, will come out on top.

I want to believe this young team, led by a guy very familiar with Baltimore, can walk in there and make Sunday the last game of one of the all-time great players in the league. I want to believe Andrew Luck will play within himself, make few mistakes, and put points on the board in front of the most hostile crowd he'll see in the NFL. I want to believe Jim Caldwell secretly will call plays to benefit the Colts because he's a Colt for life (ok, that's a stretch). I want to believe it'll all happen.

But I can't do it yet, and I actually don't think it'll be particularly close, as a close game clearly favors the Colts. The Colts Defense, more than the Offense, isn't ready for the big-time yet. Valuable experience for the future, but this isn't the year.

Ravens 33, Colts 21