Divisional Preview: Indianapolis Colts vs Baltimore Ravens
By Chris Pokorny, PFCritics WriterJanuary 10, 2007
This Saturday, the Divisional Playoffs will kick off when Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts battle Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens. This is a classic case of offense vs. defense, the strengths of the respective teams. The Colts are coming off of a commanding win in the first round over the Kansas City Chiefs, but it was a game that really should have been even more of a blowout if Manning had not thrown several costly interceptions. The Ravens will be fired up after their bye week, looking to prove doubters wrong. Simply looking at the sack differential in terms of creating from the defense and allowing by the offense can define just how good the Ravens are. The home teams went 4-0 last week in the playoffs, but there are bound to be some upsets this time around with some steeper competition involved.
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Peyton Manning: 30 of 38 for 268 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 1 sack.
Note: Don't form the misconception that just because Manning threw three interceptions against a mediocre Chiefs defense that he will be completely shut down by the Ravens. Manning to Marvin Harrison is perhaps the most successful quarterback-receiver combination of all time, but they had two miscommunications against Kansas City. If that happens this week, those plays will result in touchdowns without question. Those two have worked together way too long to have the same mistakes for two games in a row. And, historically, Manning has had a fair amount of success against Baltimore's defense.
Steve McNair: 295 of 468 for 3050 yards, 16 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 14 sacks.
Note: His statistics may not be flashy, but McNair could be the biggest reason of all that the Ravens finished with a first-round bye. His mobility and veteran decision making has created so many more opportunities for Baltimore's offense to be considered a threat. McNair has had some playoff success against the past from when he was with the Titans, and will be facing a team that he used to face twice a season.
Note: When you face the Ravens, it is rare that you can use the run to establish your gameplan. The Colts have run the ball better as the season has progressed, including a solid effort by rookie Joseph Addai in his first start of the season last week. I expect the Colts to pass the ball a little more, and then have Manning call a lot of draws and stretch plays whenever he feels that the defense has committed to the passing game more so than the running game.
Note: I highly doubt that the Ravens offense will be as inept as the Chiefs was last week, but the Ravens still need to be very careful. Lewis has had a decent season, but when you take a look at the Colts' defense, they haven't really done too bad against the larger, more physical backs. They've already stopped Rudi Johnson and Larry Johnson this season, both of whom played on high offensive powered teams that couldn't establish anything appropriately.
Note: I already mentioned the fact that I believe Harrison and Manning will be back on track this week, so that leaves Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark as Manning's other two threats once again. Clark came up huge against the Chiefs, as he recorded 20% of his season totals in yards in just one game. If the Ravens commit too many people to the running game, I expect Manning to pick on either Samari Rolle or Chris McAllister. That's easier said than done, but if Manning prefers one over the other, he won't hesitate to exploit it. He has a little more experience with Rolle, who used to be with the Titans.
Note: Steve McNair greatly improved a receiving group that used to only have one threat in tight end Todd Heap. Heap is now even more of a threat because there are two receivers with similar or greater stats than him. Derrick Mason is a veteran that McNair has always been comfortable throwing to, while Mark Clayton had a breakout season. Rookie receiver Demetrius Williams has begun to establish himself as a threat as well due to the speed he has to stretch the defense out down the field.
Note: I don't think anyone, including die-hard Colts fans, could have imagined that the Colts defense was dominate the Chiefs as much as they did. Before that Kansas City game, many critics, including myself, cited the fact that Bob Sanders could have a major impact on the Colts defense. Sanders brought everyone together in that game, provided another detour for the run stopping game, and came up with a big interception later in the contest. The Colts defensive line benefited tremendously from the Chiefs being forced to pass. Dwight Freeny has had some success versus Jonathan Ogden before, but the Ravens rarely allow sacks anymore. It'll be a tough task for the Colts to substantiate pressure consistently on the road, but they can still plug the line to stop the run.
Note: There isn't a bad thing you can say about the Ravens defense. They averaged about four sacks and nearly two interceptions per game during the season, not to mention that they only give up 12.6 points per game. Unlike teams like the Chicago Bears and the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens haven't gone through a spurt in which their defense has actually "struggled" or been inconsistent. If a perfect offense is created though by the Colts, it can always beat a great defense, much like the Bengals did to them several weeks ago. The Ravens are more vulnerable to the big pass play than they are the big run play, but do not interpret that the wrong way. Anyone who can get past Baltimore's defense would have to have put on a heck of a gameplan.
Terrence Wilkins: 25.5 yards per kick return, 8.0 yards per punt return. Adam Vinatieri: 3-of-3 in field goals, with a long of 50 yards.
Note: Vinatieri was masterful in his first playoff game for the Colts last week, as he made three field goals with ease, including two from beyond 45 yards. Granted, all three kicks came at home in the dome, but his clutch performances in the postseason can outmatch anyone.
Cory Ross: 21.6 yards per kick return, 2.8 yards per punt return. Matt Stover: 28-of-30 in field goals, with a long of 52 yards.
Note: The Ravens still miss B.J. Sams tremendously. Since the 5'6" Ross took over for him, it's been anything but easy for Ross to become a threat as a returner. He has only averaged 2.8 yards per punt return, something that will make teams more comfortable if they want to try to punt the ball deep. Stover has been automatic this season for the Ravens, but doesn't have the same postseason reputation as Vinatieri quite yet.
If there is an individual quarterback that can pick apart the Ravens defense, it is Peyton Manning. Manning still needs to overcome the postseason struggles he has had in the past, and that includes his decision making from a year ago. Unless he is really behind, Manning needs to remember his own advice: the Colts are good enough to move the ball consistently with the short, quick routes. That worked for Manning last week, and then when the Chiefs got desperate to stop him, he was able to utilize more of the deeper passes over the middle.
The Ravens will give Manning all of the looks in the world defensively, and they'll try to overpower the Colts line and knock Manning down. Manning always has a run play that he can check to in passing situations, but the Ravens have so much power and speed that they should be able to overcome that. It'll be plays like the draw play in expected passing situations, as well as quick decisions after playaction that will give the Colts offense the best chance to substantiate a balance in their offense.
I didn't expect the Colts' defense to dominate last week, and I'm not expecting it this week. However, I did expect an improvement before the Chiefs game with Bob Sanders in the lineup, and that's exactly what I saw. The Ravens have been so good at not allowing sacks, so the defense will be focused on stopping Jamal Lewis. Teams don't improve a 32nd place ranking in just one week, especially against a possible Super Bowl contender.
As great of a season as it has been for the Ravens, they will be so disappointed if they go one and out against the Colts. This team could have more talent than the one that won the Super Bowl several years ago, primarily because of Steve McNair. I was worried at first when the Ravens signed McNair before the season. I trusted that he would be a good fit for the offense, but I didn't trust the fact that the offensive line would keep him protected enough to the point where he wouldn't have to go down with an injury. McNair has been healthy nearly the entire season, and has produced the best offensive this team has had since forming.
Jamal Lewis isn't even remotely close to his old self, considering he once had a season where he rushed for twice as much as he did this season. Still, he made it through the year fairly healthy and did a good job in power situations. A big surprise to me was the lack of carries that backup Mike Anderson received. Anderson had over 1,000 yards last season, but only had 39 carries for the Ravens this season. If Lewis does suffer a postseason injury, they'll have two fresh backs waiting in the wings that can provide the team with similar stats that Lewis does.
In the end, the game will come down to whether or not the Ravens can knock Peyton Manning down and force him into bad decisions. That's what the Pittsburgh Steelers did last year to Manning in the playoffs, and it's what the Ravens have done to so many other teams throughout the season. The Chiefs played well in their secondary last week with cover two, but the Ravens will have to rely on some man to man coverages if they want to try and get to Peyton. They have trustworthy cornerbacks for man to man, but the Colts also have trustworthy receivers.
AFC Divisional Prediction
Winner - Indianapolis Colts
Of all the second-round playoff games, it seems like the Ravens are being picked to lose more so than the other home teams. At least in my case, this isn't due to the Ravens being a weak link by any means. The Colts offense can do the same thing against just about any defense they battle, and they already have a week's worth of play without being off from a week ago. The Ravens will be aggressive on defense and manage the ball well offensively. I'm anticipating a well-played game by the Colts more than I am a letdown by the Ravens. Final Score: Colts 20, Ravens 17.