Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Can the Baltimore Ravens snap a franchise-record six-game losing streak? One week removed from an extremely emotional loss to the undefeated New England Patriots that ended in controversial fashion with the Ravens complaining about several officiating decisions, they have to summon their intensity again in another high-profile encounter against a heavily-favored team.

The defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts (10-2) are in town tonight at M&T Bank Stadium after dismissing Baltimore (4-8) from the postseason last January in a defeat that broke the city's heart and probably closed the Ravens' window to win another Vince Lombardi title.

Now, the Ravens have to put aside their dispute with the officials that ended with a total of $70,000 in fines assessed to linebacker Bart Scott, cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle and wide receiver Derrick Mason. Easier said than done, though. Although the Ravens have insisted all week that the revenge factor is overrated, they'll need something extra to manufacture an upset against yet another formidable opponent.

2. Can the Ravens contain Colts quarterback Peyton Manning?

Manning is the consummate professional, blending intelligence with arm strength, accuracy and the rare ability to call his own shots at the line. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan changed tactics against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, using less aggressive blitzing tendencies and playing sounder coverage than the team did against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger earlier this season.

Manning has completed 125 of 199 passes for 1,454 yards with nine touchdown passes, three interceptions and a 93.7 quarterback rating during six regular-season meetings with the Ravens. However, the Ravens contained him during a 15-6 AFC divisional playoff loss last January. He completed just 15 of 30 passes for 170 yards with two interceptions and a 39.6 quarterback rating. Expect the Ravens to try to go after Manning a little more than they did against Brady, who has superior mobility to the Colts' classic pocket quarterback. There's little they can show him in coverage that he hasn't seen, though. One thing working in the Ravens' favor is a knee injury that will likely keep wide receiver Marvin Harrison out. Still, Manning has wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark as more than viable downfield targets.

3. Will the referees scrutinize the Ravens' behavior and will Baltimore get a fair shake?

The conspiracy theories would say, yes, but the more likely scenario is a fairly-called ball game in light of the attention that will be paid to this game after the Ravens' accusations and the fact that this is a nationally-televised contest. Did the Ravens help themselves by questioning the officials' integrity so vehemently? No, they surely didn't in the long run. In the short term, though, expect the game to be called evenly unless the Ravens bait the officials, which they are unlikely to do after last week's cautionary tale.

4. Can running back Willis McGahee duplicate last week's impressive performance?

The Colts' have a smallish front seven and have proved vulnerable against the run, setting things up well for McGahee to try to control the game again as he did a week ago with a season-high 138 yards on 30 carries. The key to running on the Colts is winning the physical matchup with hard-hitting Colts safety Bob "The Eraser" Sanders, a strong presence in run support.

5. How will McAlister's knee hold up?

McAlister is expected to be a game-time decision after resting his knee all week. He's listed as questionable. If he plays, he might need double-team assistance from safety Ed Reed over the top if he's paired against Wayne, one of the league's top deep threats.

Who has the Edge?

Offense

Total (23) Rushing (17) Passing (20)

Quarterback

Kyle Boller had outdueled Tom Brady until the moments when it counted the most: the fourth quarter. Until Boller's late interception, he was playing one of the best games of his star-crossed career. Despite speculation to the contrary, Boller appears to be the Ravens' safest bet for 2008 due to Steve McNair's physical regression.

Running back

Willis McGahee is coming off a landmark performance against the New England Patriots where he bullied their celebrated linebackers. Now, he has to work overtime to keep up with the usually outstanding production of shifty Colts runner Joseph Addai.

Receivers

Derrick Mason has caught 430 passes since 2003, a mark only surpassed by Torry Holt's 478 and Chad Johnson's 430. With 85 catches for the season, Mason is on the verge of breaking his Ravens single-season record of 86 catches established in 2005. With 842 receiving yards, he's on pace to register 1,123 for the season, which would be the second-most in franchise history behind Michael Jackson's 1,201 in 1996.

Offensive line

They just generated perhaps their best performance of the season against New England, not allowing a sack and paving huge holes for Willis McGahee to traverse through. Now they don't have to account for Dwight Freeney this week, but must keep an eye on Robert Mathis, who leads the Colts with seven sacks.

Defense

Total (6) Rushing (3) Passing (15)

Defensive line

The Ravens' interior linemen, Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata, are enjoying banner seasons. This unit sorely misses Trevor Pryce's pass-rush production, though. Without a proven pass rusher upfront other than outside linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs, it's tough to keep quarterbacks honest without excessive blitz packages.

Linebackers

Ray Lewis leads Baltimore with 167 tackles and is the Ravens' all-time leader with 2005 tackles. Bart Scott was fined $25,000 for throwing the officials' yellow flag into the stands against the Patriots. Jarret Johnson is having some trouble tackling due to a broken thumb on his right hand.

Secondary

Ed Reed has intercepted 33 passes since his rookie year, including six this season, ranking first in interceptions since 2003. He's also ahead of Darren Sharper, Champ Bailey, Ty Law, Dre' Bly and Greg Wesley for interception return yardage. The Ravens need Chris McAlister to play today despite a strained knee. They desperately need his help against Reggie Wayne.

Special teams

Matt Stover has connected on 22 of 25 field goals this season and is the second most accurate kicker in league history with a .840 percentage on 430 o 512 field goals. No one has hit more field goals than Stover since 1996 with 322 during that span.

Offense

Total (4) Rushing (13) Passing (7)

Quarterback

Peyton Manning might have been eclipsed by Tom Brady this season, but he remains one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history with his intelligence, quick release and uncommon awareness.

Running back

Joseph Addai is one of the most complete, dynamic runners in the league, excelling in the running and passing game. He has rushed for 943 yards and nine touchdowns, also catching 31 passes for two more scores.

Receivers

Reggie Wayne has emerged as the leader of the receiving corps during Marvin Harrison's prolonged convalescence from a knee injury. Meanwhile, tight end Dallas Clark remains a dangerous threat with nine touchdown catches out of 49 receptions. Rookie first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez has been fairly quiet all year. They need Harrison back in time for the playoffs.

Offensive line

The Colts sorely needed rookie left tackle Tony Ugoh's quickness back in the lineup. Overall, it's a solid, experienced line besides Ugoh with Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday and right tackle Ryan Diem leading the charge. Indianapolis has allowed 17 sacks, an outstanding figure considering Peyton Manning has thrown 408 passes.

Defense

Total (2) Rushing (18) Passing (2)

Defensive line

They obviously miss injured All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney's pass-rushing presence, but still get solid production out of Robert Mathis. Raheem Brock penetrates the line of scrimmage adeptly.

Linebackers

Gary Brackett is an underrated middle linebacker, undersized but athletic enough to intercept two passes and lead the Colts with 123 tackles. Freddy Keiaho has been an excellent replacement for Cato June.

Secondary

Bob "The Eraser" Sanders is the chief hit man with 97 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks. Former Howard University star Antoine Bethea will always be remembered by Baltimore fans for how he intercepted Steve McNair in the end zone in the Ravens' playoff loss last winter. Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden play it safe as Cover 2 cornerbacks not blessed with top-flight speed.

Special teams

Adam Vinatieri remains one of the top kickers in the game. He booted five field goals in a 15-6 playoff win in Baltimore last January. Hunter Smith is a reliable punter. The return game is solid, albeit unspectacular with T.J. Rushing returning punts and kickoffs.

EDGES: Quarterback: Indianapolis; Running back: Even; Receivers: Indianapolis; Offensive line: Indianapolis; Defensive line: Baltimore; Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Even; Special teams: Indianapolis.

Three downs with ...

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller 1. On how Willis McGahee's success affects the passing game: "Willis, when we can get that running game cranked up, they're going to have put some extra guys in the box. Therefore, we get one-on-one coverage on the outside and that's all you can ask for.

"I'll take our guys against everybody. When we get those runs cranked up, keep ourselves in manageable down distances and win on the outside, it makes it fun."

2. On auditioning to be the Ravens' quarterback next season: "I don't necessarily look at three weeks from now. I look at the Colts game. Every game is very important, and we have a great task this week against the Colts.

"It's an opportunity for everybody to go out there and prove what we can do, prove as an offense that it's just not one week. We can do this on a consistent basis. So, every week from here on out is going to be huge."

3. On studying quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning: "You always look at different guys, and Peyton is a scientist. He picks apart defenses and just a great guy to watch. Fundamentally, he's right on, he's very accurate.

"You just try to take little things from each guy and go out there and play your game at the same time. You don't try to imitate or be like them, but take little things from them so that you can get to the same place."

Three downs with ...

Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders

1. On if the Colts feel pressure to repeat: "Not at all. This is a new year, let last year go. We won a Super Bowl, it was great, everything's good. We got new guys around here, it's a new atmosphere, new feeling. It's totally different.

"There's not a champion yet, so we're working toward that. That's one of our goals. We don't feel pressure. We're just going to continue to work hard, do what we've been doing, and just keep trying to win.

2. On missing Dwight Freeney: "It's really tough to replace Dwight. He's an excellent player. He's done a great job this year. It's tough to see him go down. He's a leader on our defense, and it's always tough when you lose a guy like that because you want somebody in there who can play as good as Dwight.

"It's tough to plan, but we've done a good job of getting guys in there to get the job done. The guys who are in there playing, some are young, some have been around, and they're playing pretty good. So as long as we continue to move forward, I think we'll be fine."

3. On the confidence the Colts built by beating Baltimore last season: "I think it was huge. It had just set the tone for us the rest of the way. I think we really showed ourselves and anyone else and the world that we could play well as long as we stayed on the details and we did the things that we needed to do.

"It was tough during the regular season, but the good thing is that we made it in the playoffs and we started from scratch and we just continued to move forward. It was a positive game for us, and we just kept building upon that."

How the Ravens can win

1. Pressure Peyton Manning. The Ravens have contained Manning in the past by being unpredictable with blitz packages and coverage schemes. Rex Ryan will need to be extremely creative to negate Manning's formidable intellect and precise right arm.

2. Run the football. The Ravens need to stick with a hot hand, and that's running back Willis McGahee, who ran roughshod over the New England Patriots. McGahee needs to win his personal matchup with hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders.

3. Contain Reggie Wayne. Wayne is having another banner season, taking up the slack in the absence of an injured Marvin Harrison. He ranks fifth in the NFL with 76 catches for 1,169 yards and eight touchdowns.

How the Colts can win

1. Go after Chris McAlister. If McAlister's capabilities are limited due to a knee strain that kept him out of practice all week, then there could be some matchups for Peyton Manning to exploit. If McAlister can't go as he's expected to be a game-time decision, the Colts will gladly try their hand against replacement Corey Ivy.

2. Run the football. Shifty backs like Joseph Addai can give Baltimore trouble. He's similar in style to Buffalo Bills rookie Marshawn Lynch, who nearly ran for 100 yards against the Ravens earlier this season.

3. Frustrate Baltimore. Manning's constant audibling can confuse defenses and make them restless enough to jump offsides or overplay their hand.

INSIDE SLANT

The rumor mill continues to buzz about the Baltimore Ravens and former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher with rampant speculation that team owner Steve Bisciotti has been secretly meeting with Cowher. There have been rumors about Bisciotti and Cowher meeting at M&T Bank Stadium. There have been rumors about Cowher and Bisciotti playing golf in North Carolina. None of the rumors are true, though, according to general manager Ozzie Newsome. Bisciotti and Cowher apparently did bump into each other at a University of Maryland women's basketball game against Princeton. Cowher's daughter plays for Princeton. Cowher, who is working for NBC, is reportedly happy with his current post and not inclined to pursue a head-coaching position in 2008.

Plus, coaching in the AFC North twice a year against his old team might not be advisable. The Ravens have made it clear that Brian Billick will remain their coach next season after granting him a contract extension through 2010 last January. Could a potential 10-game skid to close out the season change Bisciotti's mind? Doubtful, but you can't rule it out completely.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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