AFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Indianapolis Colts vs. Baltimore Ravens

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Playoff-tested Ravens’ matchup with upstart Colts full of emotional storylines

<p> AFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Indianapolis Colts vs. Baltimore Ravens</p>

The NFL’s feel-good story of the 2012 season will collide with what will be the final chapter of a legendary career when the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens take the field for Sunday’s AFC Wild Card game at 1 p.m. ET on CBS. On one sideline are the Colts (11-5), who have won five out of their last six games and got Chuck Pagano, their head coach and inspirational leader, back on the sidelines last week. On the other are the Ravens (10-6), who dropped four of their final five to stumble to the finish, but will be riding their own wave of emotion as Ray Lewis, their defensive leader and the heart and soul of this team, gears up for one “last ride.”

When the Indianapolis Colts have the ball:
Indianapolis’ offense ended the regular season ranked 10th in the NFL in yards gained with 362.4 per game and tied for 18th in scoring with 22.3 points per contest. The Colts were 22nd in rushing offense (104.4 ypg) and seventh in passing offense (258.0), as quarterback Andrew Luck set the NFL record for passing yards (4,374) by a rookie quarterback. Although the No. 1 overall pick came three touchdown passes shy of matching predecessor Peyton Manning’s 26 in 1998, he threw 10 fewer interceptions (18 compared to 28) than No. 18 did in his first season and also led his team to the playoffs. The Colts’ reliance on Luck was due somewhat to a running game that managed just 3.8 yards per carry. Running back Vick Ballard has emerged as the lead backfield option, but he’s had just one 100-yard game and has scored two rushing touchdowns. Compare that to Luck, who has five rushing scores with nearly 150 fewer carries than Ballard. Veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne, one of the few remaining holdovers from the Manning era, put together another Pro Bowl-caliber season with a team-high 106 receptions (sixth in NFL) and 1,355 yards (seventh), but it’s another rookie, fellow wideout T.Y. Hilton who leads the way with seven touchdown catches and is averaging 17.2 yards per reception. If there are any concerns when it comes to Luck, they are those related to his 54.1 completion percentage, which is the second-lowest among qualified starting quarterbacks, the interceptions (18, tied for third-most), and that he’s been sacked 41 times. In addition to the picks, the Colts have fumbled the ball away nine times.

Consistently ranked among the top defenses in the league, Baltimore’s unit took a step backwards this season. The Ravens finished the regular season 17th in total defense, giving up 350.9 yards per game, and tied for 12th in scoring defense at 21.5 points per game. Statistically speaking, the Ravens fared better against the pass (228.1 ypg, 17th) compared to the run (122.8 ypg, 20th). What’s more, the defense allowed only 15 touchdown passes, which tied for the second-fewest in the NFL. The Ravens were in the middle of the pack when it came to sacks (37) and forced a total of 25 turnovers, including 13 interceptions, during the regular season.

When the Baltimore Ravens have the ball:
Baltimore’s offense ranked 16th in the league in total offense (352.5 ypg), but 10th in scoring at nearly 25 points per game. The Ravens were 11th in rushing offense with 118.8 yards per game, as running back Ray Rice went over 1,100 yards rushing for the fourth straight season. They ended up 15th in passing offense (233.7 ypg) with Joe Flacco throwing for a career-high 3,817 yards, along with 22 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. For all the criticism levied at Flacco, don’t forget that he’s the only starting quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. As far as Flacco’s pass-catchers go, veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin led the team with 65 receptions and 921 yards, while Torrey Smith established himself as a legitimate vertical threat (17.4 ypc, 8 TDs). Tight end Dennis Pitta and Rice also were reliable targets, each posting 61 receptions with Pitta hauling in seven scoring strikes. The Ravens also have a viable weapon in return specialist Jacoby Jones, who averaged 30.7 yards per kickoff return and brought back two of them as well as a punt for touchdowns. His production earned him an invite to next month’s Pro Bowl as the AFC’s kick returner. Sacks (38) were somewhat of an issue, but ball security was not as the Ravens only turned it over 16 times, which tied them with the Patriots for the fewest in the AFC.

Of all the playoff teams, only Washington’s defense finished lower in the total defense rankings than Indianapolis’. The Colts were No. 26 in terms of yards allowed (Redskins No. 28), surrendering more than 374 per contest. The main culprit was the run defense, which ranked 29th due to the 137.5 yards rushing allowed per game. Their pass defense ranked 21st (236.8 ypg), as did the scoring defense (24.2 ppg). Two other factors that didn’t necessarily help were an inability to produce sacks (32) and turnovers. The Colts’ defense forced a total of 15 turnovers, including just three fumbles. That total is the second-fewest takeaways in the AFC.

Key Factor:
There has been no better story in the NFL this season than Indianapolis and this young team rallying behind their head coach, Chuck Pagano. This Colts team has been “Chuckstrong” throughout and for Pagano this matchup with Baltimore represents a homecoming of sorts. Pagano was on the Ravens’ coaching staff from 2008-11, the last year serving as the team’s defensive coordinator, so he’s well familiar with the personnel. And that’s especially the case with Ray Lewis, the Ravens’ All-Pro linebacker who announced earlier this week that he will retire at the end of this season. As great as the Colts’ story has been and as much as the Ravens like and respect Pagano, Lewis is one of their own and I don’t see this team sending him off with a home loss. The Colts may have more wins and come into this one with more momentum, but this is still a flawed team, especially on defense, while the Ravens have won their past four opening playoff games. Have no fear Ravens fans, Lewis’ “last ride” won’t end on Sunday.

Prediction: Ravens 24, Colts 17

Related:

AFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals vs. Houston Texans
NFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Minnesota Vikings vs. Green Bay Packers
NFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Seattle Seahawks vs. Washington Redskins

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