The story of the game was the Colts defense: Everyone knew that Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis offense could move the ball against the Ravens defense, but the potent Baltimore rush offense was supposed to be able to plow over the soft Colts run defense, sustain long drives, and keep Manning on the sidelines.
That didn't happen because of the stellar play of the defensive line at the point of attack — Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Antonio Johnson, and Daniel Muir all deserve equal credit — and another strong performance by the linebackers, with Gary Brackett and Clint Session getting high marks.
After allowing a few big plays on the first drive, the Indianapolis defense clamped down and didn't give Ray Rice any room in which to operate. The linebackers especially stepped up in the screen game, holding Rice to nine receptions for 60 yards on 12 targets and only allowing one big play — a 26-yard screen pass on third and eight in the third quarter. Rice came up with clutch play after clutch play in Week 11 and throughout the season in the passing game and the Colts did not allow a repeat performance.
Once they had the lead, they counted on Freeney, Mathis, and Brackett to pressure Joe Flacco into submission. They only recorded one sack, but he was continually harried in the second half and finished with only a 48.4 passer rating. Once the offense got the lead, the defense was able to pin their ears back and close the door, forcing three turnovers. It was a tremendous team effort by a unit that is often overshadowed by the star power on offense.
Pierre Garcon gets honorary defensive kudos: Garcon made the biggest play of the night, streaking after Ed Reed and forcing a fumble after Reed intercepted a Manning pass with six minutes left in the third quarter.
If Garcon doesn't make that play, Baltimore sets up shop in field goal range — or Reed possibly finds his way into the end zone on the return — perhaps scores a touchdown, and enters the fourth quarter trailing by only a touchdown in a game dominated by the Colts and momentum on their side. Instead, Indianapolis get the ball back, bleeds the last six minutes off of the clock and uses up another two minutes of the fourth quarter before kicking a game-icing field goal.
Garcon swung the momentum back to the Colts sideline, helped deflate a Ravens team that was already on life support, and kept the ball away from the Baltimore offense, all with one swipe of his arm. On a night where he was held to five receptions for 34 yards on ten targets — and really should've come back harder to the ball to try and break up that interception the first place — he made the game's signature play.
As a follow-up to that: Who else saw Garcon fly into the frame on the second interception of the drive and thought he was going to strip the ball again before Reed wisely stepped out of bounds?
The offense needs to get Reggie Wayne more involved earlier in the game: Wayne did not catch a pass — and was not even targeted — until ten minutes remained in the second quarter. After he got that first catch out of the way, he and the Colts offense found their rhythm and he ended up leading the team in targets, receptions, and yards.
It's not a coincidence that Indianapolis started moving the ball and scoring touchdowns as soon as Wayne started getting involved. Wayne is taking a trip to Revis Island on Sunday, so it will be difficult for Manning to get him the ball — and he obviously shouldn't force anything — but Wayne needs to get into a rhythm for the offense to get into a rhythm and they need to make sure he gets the ball in his hands, even if it's short passes and screens with Wayne lined up in the slot.
Austin Collie did a fine job before Wayne established himself. He even caught a touchdown pass before Wayne did. But he is no substitute for Reggie Wayne and the stars on offense will need to shine their brightest against a tough Jets defense in the AFC Championship game.
The elephant is still in the room: The Colts were one-for-three on third and less than two, converting once on third and one by running the ball, failing on third and two running the ball, and failing on third and one running the ball. They went to the air in goal-to-go situations when they needed to score, with mixed results.
This was a stout Ravens run defense and has always been tough against Indianapolis in short yardage situations, but the Colts need to be able to get those two yards when it matters. It appears as though Mike Hart is their best short yardage runner, so he should be in the game and get looks inside the five and in short yardage situations. This part of their game is too important to let the egos of Joseph Addai and Donald Brown get in the way.
Manning in the two-minute offense is the most potent weapon left in the playoffs: Teams fear Manning in the two-minute drill. Even the mighty Ravens defense was shredded for 75 yards in a minute and 23 seconds.
The Colts have (hopefully) two games left: One that should be a tight contest against a formidable defense and one that will pit them against an explosive offense where the team that has the ball last should be the winner. In both those cases, Manning gives Indianapolis a tremendous advantage.
That advantage will show up on the scoreboard, but it will also affect the strategy of the opposing team's coach. It's unlikely that any coach left in the bracket will make a Belichick-esque decision based on the heat he took after Week 10, but opposing coaches will gamble. They will onside kick with the lead or to get back in the game. They will make their offense more conservative towards the end of a half in order to play keep away. And, you can bet that Rex Ryan will gamble on a big blitz in order to make a splash play on Manning and the vaunted Colts offense.
Indianapolis needs to be prepared for this. The games are only getting tighter, the stakes will only get higher. They need to be able to take full advantage of any opportunities their opponent gives them.
Matt Stover did just fine: It remains to be seen whether or not resting the injured knee of the greatest clutch kicker in the history of the NFL for the playoffs will come back to bite the Colts. But, for this week, Stover was accurate, reliable, and plenty clutch.
As a matter of fact, I doubt Colts fans would have been as comfortable with Adam Vinatieri kicking that 43-yarder in the first quarter as they were with Stover kicking it.
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