Hitchhiker’s Guide to Colts at Ravens: NFL Playoffs, Wild Card Round

I restarted this column in week 6, when the Colts traveled to New Jersey to take on the New York Jets. The Colts lost that game in embarrassing fashion, 35-9, to fall to 2-3 on the season. Who would have thought that 12 weeks later, the Colts would be getting set to face Baltimore in the first round of the NFL playoffs after winning 9 of their final 11 games?

But that is what happened, and while Colts fans may have to suffer through a week of hearing why their team is the worst playoff team ever, how they have no shot, and how the mighty Ravens, lead by the greatest person ever, Ray Lewis, will run them out of the stadium, they are a playoff team, and they have their opportunity to make a lot of people look silly. Will the Colts take advantage of that opportunity? After the jump, we'll find out together, as we look at the key stats, match-ups, and injuries that will help determine how much longer this magical season lasts.

Tale of the tape

How do the Colts and Ravens measure up against each other on offense and defense? Let us take a look. NFL.com conventional rankings are listed first, with FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats (DVOA) in parenthesis.  

 

Indianapolis Colts

   

Baltimore Ravens

 
  Offense Defense   Offense Defense
Passing 7th  (21st) 21st (27th)   15th  (15th) 17th  (13th)
Rushing 22nd (17th) 29th (32nd)   11th  (7th) 20th (26th)
Total 10th (18th) 26th (31st)   16th  (13th) 17th (19th)

   

When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense Baltimore Ravens Defense
87 WR R. Wayne 92 DT H. Ngata
80 TE C. Fleener 62 NT T. Cody
74 LT A. Castonzo 90 DT P. McPhee
76 LG J. Reitz RLB 55 T. Suggs
62  C AQ Shipley WLB 59 D. Ellerbe
75 RG M. McGlynn MLB 52 R. Lewis
69 RT W. Justice SLB 91 C. Upshaw
83 TE D. Allen LCB 21 C. Graham
11 WR D. Avery SS 31 B. Pollard
12 QB A. Luck FS 20 E. Reed
33 RB V. Ballard RCB 29 C. Williams

Most Colts fans came away from Sunday's game against the Texans feeling the Colts had just played their most complete game of the season. In particular, fans and media praised the Colts 1st-half efficiency and play calling on offense, noting that it may have been OC Bruce Arians' strongest coordinator performance of the year. Looking at the stats from that game actually paints a different picture. The Colts ran 62 offensive plays and gained only 265 yards, for a meager 4.3 yards per play. Breaking it down in more detail, Luck completed only 50% of his passes (14/28) for 191 yards (6.8ypa). Vick Ballard carried the ball 27 times for 78 yards (2.9ypc) and 20 of those yards came on 1 run, meaning he picked up 58 yards on his remaining 26 carries (2.2ypc).

So, were our eyes deceiving us? Or are the stats wrong? Well, stats are never wrong, they are stats, but it helps to have context to understand them. The truth is, the Colts offensive performance likely "passed the eye test" because Colts fans were comparing it to recent performances in which they struggled against the Chiefs, Texans, Titans (to some degree) and Bills. Still, when you adjust your expectations for the Colts offense based on the fact that they were playing a good Texans defense – who just so happened to be desperate for a win – the stats look better. The Colts were able to avoid turnovers, limit the damage done by JJ Watt, put up enough points to win the game, and execute one of the most amazing clock-killing drives at the end, which ate the final 9:46 off the clock. So while their performance was not perfect, it was good.

More importantly, did Sunday's performance help tell us anything about how the Colts offense will perform in the playoffs? We've been big on Red Zone Stats all year in this space – it was an area you could identify early in the season where the Colts offense seemed to struggle – so let's look at those. Sunday continued a recent trend where the Colts got fewer red zone trips (rzt) than they had earlier in the season (3.0 on Sunday), but also scored at a much higher rate than they were in the first half of 2012 (2 TDs on 3 rzt on Sunday). Including the numbers from Sunday, the Colts finished the season averaging 3.0 rzt/game (18th in the league) and scoring touchdowns on 54.17% of those trips (17th in the league).  Not great, to be sure, but it does show improvement over the Colts early-season totals, which were well below 50%.

Before talking about the Ravens' red zone defense, I wanted to take a moment to discuss the topic of the Colts home/road splits. There's been this notion that the Colts offense struggles mightily on the road. This is constantly supported by one stat: 4-4, the Colts win-loss record on the road, which is worse than their 7-1 record at home. Taking a deeper look, however, find the following: on the season, the Colts averaged 3.0 rzt/g. They averaged 3.0 rzt/g at home and 3.0rzt/g on the road. They scored TDs on 54.17% of those rzts for the season. They scored TDs on 54.17% of their rzts at home and TDs on 54.17%  on the road. The offense also scored 2.4 points per field goal, at home and on the road. In other words: the Colts offensive performance was nearly identical, regardless of where the game was played. We'll take a look at some actual home/road splts later on.

Back to Sunday: the Colts may find it tough to replicate their recent red zone success on Sunday. While the Ravens defense is no longer what it was in the mid-2000s, one area that has remained strong is their red zone defense. The Ravens surrender 3.3rzt/g (t-20th with 4 other teams), but only surrender TDs on 43.4% of those trips, 2nd in the NFL. In a game in which they are considered major underdogs – and for good reason – the Colts must score touchdowns when they get inside the red zone, short field goals won't beat the Ravens.

How can the Colts score those points? It might start with some extra success on the ground: the Ravens have the 26th rush defense by DVOA, and allow 122.8 yards-per-game. Unfortunately for the Colts, the Ravens weakness in the running game is right up the middle, which also happens to be an area where the Colts struggle. The Colts strength in the running game – runs to the left, behind LT Anthony Castonzo – lines up with the strength of the Ravens rush defense.

While they don't get much luck in that match-up, they do get some luck in the passing game, where the Colts strongest offensive area – passing the ball to Reggie Wayne and TY Hilton – also seems to be the Ravens biggest weakness. The Ravens are 6th in the league in covering #3/4/5 WRs, 9th in the league in covering TEs, and 7th in the league in defending passes to RBs. That's all great, but the Ravens are just 20th in the league against #1 WRs and 30th in the league against #2  [All numbers are per FootballOutsiders.com's DVOA.] Some may argue that Hilton is the Colts #3/Slot WR, but based on targets and playing time, I believe he's supplanted Donnie Avery in the #2 role. 

But while the Colts will have opportunities to exploit the Ravens defense – utilizing their two best WRs to boot – their ability to do so will likely come down to how well they protect QB Andrew Luck. While the Colts allowed only 1 sack to the Texans on Sunday, they allowed Luck to be pressured on 31% of his drop backs, per our Scott Kacsmar. Also per Scott's stats, Luck was an abysmal 2 for 8, for 17 yards when pressured. Ugh. For the Ravens, the return of LB Terrell Suggs, as well as the high level of play from LB Paul Kruger, has lead the Ravens to the 10th best pass rush by adjusted sack rate in the league.

The biggest story here may be how the Colts handle injuries: LG Joe Reitz is dealing with a concussion issue. The drop-off in performance from Reitz to backup Jeff Linkenbach is significant. At center, Samson Satele seems set to return. The issue there, however, is that his backup, AQ Shipley, has performed at a much higher level than Satele. Do the Colts bench the better player? If the Colts field a starting OL of Castzono – Linkenbach – Satele – McGlynn – Justice, I wouldn't be too optimistic about their chances on Sunday, and Andrew Luck could be in for a long, pressure-filled day.

When the Ravens have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense Baltimore Ravens Offense
90 DE C. Redding 82 WR T. Smith
99 NT A. Johnson 74 LT M. Oher
91 DE R. Matthews 76 LG J. Reid
98 OLB R. Mathis 77 C  M. Birk
51 ILB P. Angerer 73 RG M. Yanda
50 ILB J. Freeman 72 RT K. Osemele
93 OLB D. Freeney 84 TE E. Dickson
32 CB C. Vaughn 81 WR A. Boldin
35 FS J. Lefeged 5 QB  J. Flacco
41 SS A. Bethea 44 FB V. Leach
23 CB V. Davis 27 RB R. Rice

Let's just dive right into it, shall we? We mentioned in the offensive section that the Colts offense performs pretty similarly in their home/road splits, but teased that there was an area of the team that had significant differences in those same splits. That area, of course, is the Colts defense, which performed better at home than on the road. The Colts defense surrendered 3.3 rzt/g on average for the 2012 season. At home, they surrendered 2.6rzt/g, while that number jumped to 4.0 rzt/g on the road. As far as scoring goes, their season average was 50.94% (8th in the NFL!), but, again, they were better at home, where they surrendered TDs on 47.62% of rzts, versus the road, where they surrendered TDs on 53.12% of their rzts.

On Sunday, they'll face a Ravens offense that performs well in the red zone, especially at home. For the season, Ravens averaged 3.1 rzt/g, but that number jumps to 3.5 rzt/g at home. And scoring wise? The Ravens finished the year scoring on 57.14% of their rzts, but, again, there's a major jump at home, where they scored on 60.71% of those opportunities.

The real question becomes: which Ravens offense will show up? Will it be the team who started the NFL season on such a tear that it lead experts around the league to proclaim them the odds-on Super Bowl favorites, and annoint Joe Flacco an "elite" quarterback? Or will it be the Ravens team who finished the season with a performance so shaky and inconsistent that it not only lead to the firing of OC Cam Cameron, but to many questioning whether or not Flacco was the long-term solution at the position?

Part of that answer lays at the feet of the Colts. Will they be able to pressure Flacco, whose completion percentage and qbrating both drop significantly – 59.7% to 32.9% and 87.8 to 36.2 respectively – when pressured? And can they pressure him without blitzing him? While his numbers don't improve vs. the Blitz, they don't suffer much, either.  Flacco's comp% drops from 59.7% to 53.7% while his qbrating dips slightly from 87.8 to 85.1 when blitzed.

The biggest question on Sunday will be how the Ravens utilize their best player, RB Ray Rice, and if the Colts can stop him. Rice's "touches" were a source of conversation and controversy all year, and some believe that the way he was used (or misused, as the case may be) was a major factor in Cameron's dismissal. Will former Colts HC Jim Caldwell, now the Ravens OC, do a better job of utilizing him? When Rice touches the ball, he's still one of the best in the game, ranking 7th in DVOA and averaging 4.4ypc.

The Colts run defense should get a boost from the return of NT Antonio Johnson and ILB Kavell Conner, both of whom have missed the past 3 games with leg injuries. If both Conner and Johnson can return to their pre-injury form, the Colts may have a good chance at slowing Rice down: before the 2nd half of the first Texans game (the first game Conner and Johnson missed) and the Kansas City debacle, the Colts run defense seemed to be turning the corner, limiting opposing running backs to boom-bust performances.  If the Colts can turn Rice into a boom-bust runner, bottle him up on 1st and 2nd downs, they will force the Ravens to do what they don't want to: have Flacco throw on 3rd down against a defense playing pass.

This is the match-up I was hoping the Colts would get once it became clear they should make the playoffs. I felt the Ravens were inconsistent and mistake prone, and far too reliant on the legs of one player – Rice – to be a serious threat in the playoffs. That doesn't mean they won't beat the Colts – they should – but of all the possible 1st-round match-ups, this is the one that affords the Colts the most opportunity to move on. Play smart, play fast, and be the aggressor.

The Ravens also wanted this match-up, as evident by their resting their starters against the Bengals, despite the possibility of moving up in the seeding. Let them know they're in for a 60-minute fight, take it to 'em, make them regret wanting to play you. Get the win, and earn a date with… Peyton? Oh, God, I'm getting too old for this.

Key Match-ups

1. The Ravens vs. The Worst 11-5 Team in the HISTORY OF HISTORY – The notion that the Colts are the worst 11-5 team – and one of the worst playoff teams – in the history of the NFL has been making the rounds lately. Maybe they are, but who cares? The Colts are 11-5 and they are a playoff team. No, you aren't necessarily what your record says you are – I don't believe the Colts are as good as your average 11-5 team – but it no longer matters. The Colts have already been more successful in 2012 than anyone could have imagined, and they have a good chance to go into Baltimore and shock the Ravens on Sunday.

As far as next year goes: don't worry about it. This team has a lot of holes, it's true, but the Colts have in the neighborhood of $50MM in cap space this off-season, and they have to spend most of it, per CBA rules. So, yes, there are holes, but expect Grigson to aggressively address each of them in free agency and the draft. And, if that still doesn't calm you down, just remember this: you're better off being the worst 11-5 team of all time than being the best 1-15 team of all time. Enjoy the ride, leave the stats, analysis, and hand-wringing for Monday.

2. Colts Coverage Units vs. Ravens KR/PR Jacoby Jones – Jones lead the Ravens to the top kick-off return unit in the league, by average return yards. He's returned two KOs and one punt for touchdowns. His contributions have helped the Ravens become the #1 ranked special teams unit by DVOA. If the Colts are going to win this game, they are going to have to make the Ravens work for all of their points and not allow any cheap scores via turnovers or special teams returns.

3. Colts OL vs. Ravens Pass Rush - Andrew Luck's stats in 2012: 339 of 627 (54.1%) for 4374, 23 TDs, 18ints, 76.5qbrating.  Andrew Luck under pressure in 2012: 42 of 110 (38.2%) for 655 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs, 62.5qbrating. Andrew Luck's stats when hit or knocked down: 30 of 90 (33.3%) for 455 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INT, 48.1qbrating. Protect Luck, and he'll find the open guy and make a play. Don't protect him, and he's prone to making some pretty egregious rookie mistakes. For the Colts to win on Sunday, their OL will need their best performance of the season.

4. WRs Reggie Wayne and TY Hilton vs. Ravens Secondary – Andrew Luck to Reggie Wayne or TY Hilton: 156 of 285 (54.7%) for 2216 yards (642 YAC), and 12 TDs.  Andrew Luck to everyone else: 183 of 343 (53.4%) for 2158 yards (844 YAC), and 11 TDs. Wayne and Hilton are Luck's best targets right now. They also line up against the weakness of the Ravens' D, their outside CBs. Luck will need to find both players early, and often, if the Colts offense is going to have the kind of success it will need to beat the Ravens.

5. ILBs Kavell Conner, Jerrell Freeman, and Pat Angerer vs. RB Ray Rice – Rice hasn't been as explosive in the running game this year as he was in 2011, gaining only 4.4ypc this year opposed to 4.7ypc last year, but he's still the straw that stirs the Ravens' drink, and the Colts defense must bottle him up if they are going to advance to round 2. To do so, the Colts will need to keep him from getting to the boundary, force him up the middle, and stay low on him – he loves to use his low center of gravity (he's 5'8" tall) and strong legs to punish defenders. If they can do this, they can force Flacco to beat them, a scenario that offers them a much more successful outlook.

6. OLBs Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney vs. OTs Oher and Osemele – When the Colts do bottle up Rice, and the Ravens decide to throw the ball, the Colts must pressure Flacco. This falls on the shoulders of OLBs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis – we hope the Colts put Mathis in coverage for exactly 0 plays on Sunday. Freeney and Mathis have flipped roles, as of late, with Freeney starting slow, but coming on strong, picking up numerous QB pressures and recording a sack in each of his last 3 games. Mathis, on the other hand, starting out strong – he was the team's MVP through the first quarter of the season – but has limped the finish line, recording only 1 sack in his final 5 games.

On Sunday, they'll face an offensive line that has surrendered 35 sacks, 8th-most in the NFL. Freeney and Mathis have been the stars, the pillars on the Indianapolis defense for the past decade. Will they shine bright for the Colts and lead them to a victory, or will they fade, and with them, the Colts hope to move on?

The injury reports

NOTE: This guide comes out Thursdays, official injury statuses are not released until Friday, the Probable or Questionable designation in these reports is based on Wed/Thur participation only.

Indianapolis Colts

LB Pat Angerer ILLNESS (PROBABLE)
RB Delone Carter ANKLE (PROBABLE)
ILB Jerrell Freeman THUMB (PROBABLE)
OLB Dwight Freeney REST (PROBABLE)
DT Kellen Heard ILLNESS (PROBABLE)
NT Antonio Johnson ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
RT Winston Justice SHOULDER (QUESTIONABLE)
QB Andrew Luck KNEE (PROBABLE)
DE Cory Redding QUAD (QUESTIONABLE)
LG Joe Reitz CONCUSSION (QUESTIONABLE)
C Samson Satele ANKLE (PROBABLE)
C AQ Shipley KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Teddy Williams KNEE (PROBABLE)
S Tom Zbikowski KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)

Baltimore Ravens

RB Anthony Allen HEAD (PROBABLE)
TE Billy Bajema HEAD (PROBABLE)
WR Anquan Boldin SHOULDER (PROBABLE)
WR Tandon Doss ANKLE (PROBABLE)
ILB Dannell Ellerbe ANKLE (PROBABLE)
DB Chris Johnson THIGH (PROBABLE)
DE Arthur Jones THIGH (PROBABLE)
FB Vonta Leach KNEE/ANKLE (PROBABLE)
ILB Ray Lewis TRICEPS (PROBABLE)
LB Albert McClellan SHOULDER/THIGH (PROBABLE)
DE Pernell McPhee THIGH (PROBABLE)
DT Haloti Ngata KNEE (PROBABLE)
OG Kelechi Osemele KNEE (PROBABLE)
RB Bernard Pierce ANKLE (PROBABLE)
S Bernard Pollard CHEST (PROBABLE)
S Ed Reed SHOULDER (PROBABLE)
OT Jah Reid TOE (PROBABLE)
CB Jimmy Smith ABDOMEN (PROBABLE)
WR Torrey Smith KNEE (PROBABLE)
OLB Terrell Suggs BICEPS (PROBABLE)
OG Marshal Yanda SHOULDER/KNEE (PROBABLE)


 

Series notes

  • Keeping this short and sweet: since rescuing the horseshoe from the evil clutches of Baltimore, the Colts and Ravens have squared off twice in the playoffs. The Colts hold a 2-0 record in those games.

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually): CBS

Who(Visually): Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Where(Audio): 1070 AM The Fan WFNI and 97.1 HANK FM

Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Will Wolford 

Is the Game on in your area? It's the NFL Playoffs! It's either on in your area, or you live on the moon.

Officiating Crew:  MIKE CAREY. I'm OK with this!!!

Prediction

Ravens – 31, Colts – 17

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