The difference between the game Saturday night and the game three seasons ago is where the game will be played and what circumstances preceded it. Many will talk about how Colts management decided to take the foot off of the gas to end the season, potentially throwing away what could have been a perfect season, and by so doing sacrificing the team's momentum. Others will discuss how Baltimore has found its stride and is playing its best football, better football than it played when Indianapolis visited earlier in the year.
Despite the popular story lines, the "drama" behind what brought these teams together and the significance for either team should it win, this article will focus on the five things to watch in the game that will most likely affect its outcome.
A Game of Dimensions
The key for either team will be limiting the opposing offense to one dimension. Clearly, Baltimore's offensive strength and preference is running the football. Just as clearly, Indianapolis moves the ball in chunks through the air utilizing many different targets, no huddle, quick possessions, long drives, and a steadfast focus on getting into the end zone.
In order to limit the Ravens offense to one dimension, the Colts will need to generate an effective pass rush on Joe Flacco, who is entering the game bruised and battered. If a fresh Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Eric Foster (along with a Coyer blitz package making an appearance or two) can get Flacco on the move, force him to make uncomfortable throws, or keep Baltimore focused on the run, the Colts defense will be able to dictate the game when it's on the field.
The only way the pass rush will be able to generate this kind of pressure, and force the Ravens into a one-dimensional offensive team is if Clint Session, Gary Brackett, and Melvin Bullitt are effective in closing gaps, filling running lanes, and using their speed to limit Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. With the Colts key run stoppers doing the job well, the Colts can unleash the pass rush, play with the blitz, and give Flacco fits (along with keeping Baltimore from establishing an offensive rhythm).
The final part of the equation concerns the Indianapolis secondary, who may be asked to cover receivers down the field in man coverage more often than they would against a lesser rushing team. This means that Kelvin Hayden, Jerraud Powers, and Jacob Lacey will need to keep Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, and Mark Clayton locked down to not allow the Ravens to sit the Colts' front seven back on its heels.
These three defensive keys, with their respective players, will go a long way in determining the game's outcome.
A Game of Leads
It should be obvious to anyone who watches the NFL at this point that the Indianapolis Colts never say die. No matter the odds, no matter the obstacles, if there is still time on the clock and the first team is on the field, this team can win the football game. This attribute is not shared by a Ravens team which is not known for its ability to put up points in chunks nor for coming back late in close games when the offense needs to make the plays.
This difference is an obvious advantage for the Colts and means that scoring, for reasons other than the obvious, is crucial in this game. Not just putting up points, but when and how many. If the Colts can manage to get out to a two score lead, the Ravens will be in dangerous territory. Baltimore does not have an offense that can put up points quickly, does not have a prolific passing game, and will need multiple drives and a lot of time on the game clock to get back into the game.
Obviously playing with the lead is Indianapolis' defensive strong suit. With a comfortable lead, the heat will come even more aggressively against the pass, the man coverage will return to a zone, and the secondary will be given a green light to make plays on the ball when it is in the air.
If the Ravens should keep the game close, can manage to limit the Colts offense, and find themselves down one touchdown or less late in the game, it can play into their hands. If the Ravens can do anything, they can play the ball control game, grind out yards, and keep opposing offenses on the sidelines. This strategy is silly for an entire game, as the Miami Dolphins can attest, but if timed correctly, in the right situation, it could give the Ravens an opportunity to make a run at the ball game.
A Game of Energy
It will be argued time and again, now and long into the NFL's future, whether momentum is a key factor in a team's ability to have success in the playoffs. To this point, the Colts have lost playoff games for a variety of reasons, and it could be argued that one of those reasons is the conservative strategy of resting key players in meaningless games leading up to the playoffs. This theory will be put to the test Saturday night and may have a big impact on its outcome.
One side will argue that the Colts are ripe for defeat because the team has not played a game that its management has deemed "meaningful" in a month. Another side will say that the biggest key to any team that hopes to win in the playoffs is having a healthy roster, particularly amongst its impact players. Yet another group will argue that the Colts are actually primed to enter the playoffs with as much or even more energy than they ever have.
This group argues that the players were sickened by losing the opportunity to attain perfection, that they are tired of sports media constantly counting them out and foretelling their demise, and that when they have a chance to take the field Saturday night, they will unleash all of that built-up frustration on an unsuspecting Baltimore team who is in for the dogfight of their lives, if they have any hopes of advancing.
Which of these stories plays out could have a major impact on the outcome of this game. There is one thing on Indianapolis' side that will surely fuel the engine that drives the players on the field, and that is a stadium packed with fans rife with attitude, swagger, and support for its team, who will be willing to do anything they can to disprove the naysayers and put the Colts back on top the football world.
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