Ray's already planning some post-retirement relaxation
Last week the Colts got revenge on the Texans and doomed their bid for the first seed in the AFC. After earning the fifth seed and completing a remarkable single-season turnaround the Colts now face a familiar foe: the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens enter the playoffs in an unusual spot: a suspect defense now depends on an offense to bail them out. Can the Colts continue their unlikely march to the Super Bowl? Here's a few things to keep an eye on as we try to answer that question:
1. Watch for Vick Ballard. The rookie has performed admirably in place of Donald Brown, improving his blocking along the way and running with authority. The Ravens are tough in the red zone, first overall in the league, but very shaky leading up to that point. Ballard can take advantage of 20th ranked rushing defense.
2. Watch for the story-that-isn't-really-a-story. Bob Irsay…blah, blah…drunk…blah, blah…Mayflower. We get it. The Colts spent 30 years in Baltimore and have now spent 29 seasons in Indianapolis. Petty nature among a group of people in Baltimore prevents the media from moving on to real news. Instead they'll march out the same tired story that we all know. In fact, the men playing on the field know little about the real history nor do they care more for that than they do winning. There will be a day this is a non-issue. Sadly, this Sunday isn't that day.
3. Watch for ChuckStrong. Chuck Pagano's triumphant return from cancer has sparked the team but he's more than a rallying cry for this young team. Pagano will bring an intimate knowledge of the Ravens defense, a unit he coached for four years before joining the Colts. Pagano is wily, described as some within the building as "fiery" and will likely use that motivation along with his knowledge of the Ravens to get this offense in gear.
4. Watch for rookie exaggerations. If there's one thing that we can be sure of every postseason, it's that media will put far more value on quarterbacks' playoff performances than necessary. If a quarterback plays well and/or leads his team to a victory or two, he's labeled with a myriad of meaningless yet magical words like "clutch," "winner," etc. With three rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs this weekend, the media is salivating to crown the next quarterback who "just wins" and has "ice water in his veins."
5. Watch for the rope-a-dope. Ray Lewis is returning after missing ten games due to a triceps injury. Don't buy into the hype just yet. He may not play much or could play the entire game. He'll be on the gameday roster but coach John Harbaugh is saavy and will use Lewis as a strategic chip until he must reveal his plans. Lewis was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and likely will play. To what degree and in what role he'll be used will be a gameday decision. The Colts will be forced to prepare for the scenario either way.
6.Watch for teary-eyed soliloquies. Ray Lewis is retiring. He's a great player, possibly one of the greatest. He's certainly the prototypical linebacker of his generation. Expect the TV crews to wax poetic about Lewis, describing his epic acts of heroism and his unparalleled love of the game. It may induce vomiting but it's going to happen. I suggest a drinking game: every time someone gushes about Lewis have a swig. It may make the afternoon more tolerable.
7. Watch for fullback troubles. Vonta Leach used to kill the Colts in Houston, and he may well do it again on Sunday. Leach was Pro Football Focus' top graded fullback, by a large margin, and is the AFC starter at the position. The Colts' inside linebackers have struggled to get off their blocks at times throughout the season, and if they allow Leach to come at them with a full head of steam, it's going to be a long day.
8. Watch for injured offensive lines. The Colts will be missing Joe Reitz at left guard due to a concussion, so it will likely be Jeff Linkenbach in his place. Linkenbach has actually been decent at guard this season, while his time at right tackle was a complete mess. Samson Satele, on the other hand, may return, taking over the center position from A.Q. Shipley. But the more meaningful injury is Baltimore's RG Marshal Yanda. Yanda received a "serious" high-ankle sprain in Week 14, and sat out in Week 15 and 17. He says he is going to be 100%, but if he's not, it would be a huge blow to the Baltimore offensive line.
9. Watch for Ray Rice. Rice is the Ravens only true weapon. No, Joe Flacco, despite having a cannon arm, is not a weapon. This was supposed to be Flacco's big year, but he's been below average by most dependable measurables. Rice, on the other hand, is still one of the top 10 backs in football, despite being used less over the second half of the season. The Colts' defense? Worst in the league against the run. They'll need to slow down Rice, like they did Foster last week, if they're looking for an upset.
10. Watch for the "other" targets. The Ravens' big names in the receiving corps are Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, but I'm more interested in another couple of names: Jacoby Jones and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Colts' defense has been 31st against #3/4 receivers and 30th against tight ends this season. Meanwhile, Pitta has had a decent year, but Jones has had his struggles. If there's ever a defense to have a big game against, it would be this one.
11. Watch for regression. The Colts' free agent acquisitions of Samson Satele and Tom Zbikowski started for most of the season, but have been hurt the last few weeks, allowing A.Q. Shipley and Joe Lefeged to start in their place. They've performed better than the starters by any measurable that I've seen. Shipley is rated 16th among centers by PFF, while Satele is in the bottom five. Lefeged was ranked 16 spots higher than Zbikowski by the same grades, and was miles better in both run stop percentage and tackling efficiency. If the two veterans are healthy and start on Sunday, the Colts may actually be worse off.
12. Watch for the unlikely win. The Colts are red hot while the Ravens are not. Joe Flacco will need his superhero underoos to pull this one off as the Ravens defense simply isn't up to the task of topping Andrew Luck and the suddenly solid run game. It'll be a tight contest and easily could swing the other way but in the end I expect the Colts to pull off an upset and live to fight another day. Colts 24 Ravens 21.