The Ravens finished the season 10-6 but have lost 4 of their last 5 games. The Colts, on the other hand, have won 5 of their last 6 games and are coming off of their best win of the season, a 28-16 victory over the Houston Texans.
The Colts have the better record and are the hotter team, but that does not automatically translate to a victory. Here are three keys to a Colts victory this Sunday:
1. Stop Ray Rice
Ray Rice, the Ravens' running back, is among the best in the NFL. The only problem is, they don't use him nearly as much as they should. Former Colts' head coach Jim Caldwell was promoted to the offensive coordinator position of the Ravens' this year, but he hasn't improved the Ravens' offense much. He still doesn't utilize Ray Rice nearly enough. For the season, Rice has averaged only 16 carries a game and just over 70 yards on the ground per game. He is also among the league's best receiving backs and if you factor in receptions and carries he touches the ball just under 20 times per game and just over 100 yards per game. Combined he has scored 10 touchdowns this year. If the Colts can stop him (and Jim Caldwell may do that for them), they have a real chance to win.
2. Don't Turn the Ball Over
Colts' rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has played three straight weeks of turnover-free football. The Colts have gone 2-1 in that span. They have been plagued with turnovers on the road this year, however, and their rookie quarterback especially. 13 of Andrew Luck's 18 interceptions have come on the road, while 3 of his 4 fumbles have (16 of his 22 total turnovers have been committed on the road). The Colts split 4-4 on the road this year compared to 7-1 at home, and the reason is in very large part due to the turnovers. If the Colts hope to continue this storybook season they must protect the football in Baltimore on Sunday.
3. Control the Emotion
The Colts enter this game riding high after a very emotional win in which coach Chuck Pagano made his return to the sidelines. All season long they have overachieved and played great as a team behind Pagano, playing #ChuckStrong. This Sunday, while the Colts will be playing for Pagano, the Ravens' will have an emotional motivation to win as well. Linebacker Ray Lewis, a first-ballot hall of famer and one of the greatest defenders of all time, informed the team earlier this week that this would be his last season. Meaning that, should the Colts win, Sunday will be the last time Ray Lewis suits up in the NFL. The Ravens are going to be playing hard to make sure that doesn't happen. While it is uncertain how much, if at all, Lewis himself will play, it is certain that his team will be playing for him. And the Colts need to control the emotion and play as a team as they have all season.
Chuck Pagano returns to Baltimore. Jim Caldwell faces his former team. Ray Lewis playing perhaps his final NFL game. Andrew Luck making his postseason debut earlier than anyone could have imagined. There are many story lines to this game, but when the two teams step on the field on Sunday, it will be just another 60 minute game. But the winner will advance to the divisional round of the playoffs, while the loser goes home.
This game was perhaps the hardest of the year for me to pick. It could go either way. But the Colts have already extended their season longer than anyone thought possible - and I think that they will extend it yet another week longer.
My prediction: Colts 23, Ravens 20