Ravens vs. Colts: Who Has The Edge?
It will be a battle of previous and current Baltimore football franchises on Sunday afternoon when the Baltimore Ravens host the Indianapolis Colts.
These franchises haven’t met in the playoffs since 2009, when Peyton Manning and the Colts defeated the Ravens 20-3 in Indianapolis.
Manning is gone (at least for this round) but Andrew Luck is now piloting the Colts' potent offense. It will be the number one overall pick’s first career playoff game after an ultra-impressive rookie season.
At the other end of the spectrum is Ray Lewis. The preeminent defender of his generation, Lewis will be playing in his 18th and potential final career playoff game.
Lewis announced Wednesday that he would be retiring after this playoff run. The 17-year veteran would love nothing more than to bookend his hall of fame career with a second Super Bowl ring.
Adding to the drama, Chuck Pagano will return to Baltimore after coaching there the previous four seasons. Pagano returned last week in his first game since leaving the Colts to undergo treatment for leukemia. The Colts upset the Houston Texans, who had everything to play for while the Colts were locked into the five-seed. Having Pagano back on the sideline definitely gave the Colts a lift as they stayed hot entering the playoffs.
Thus, with so many story lines entering the game, it’s easy to overlook the numbers that will factor into the game.
Can the Ravens’ banged up, yet experienced and inspired defense slow down Luck and the Colts’ offense? Can the Ravens’ underachieving offense get fat on a putrid Colts’ defense? How much of an effect will Ray Lewis and Chuck Pagano have on their respective team?
All that and more will be broken down as I dissect each aspect of this game.
Offensive Edge: Ravens
The edge here is as about as close as it gets, but despite the Colts’ ranking better in yards per game, I have to give the slight edge to the Ravens.
Yes Luck has been amazing this season, especially for a rookie. He finished seventh in passing yards a did a lot with a young team.
However Luck was second in the NFL in turnovers and will be playing on the road, where he and the Colts haven’t played their best football.
Joe Flacco meanwhile has won a playoff game in all four of his seasons and had decent year himself. Flacco finished 14th in passing yards, and was economical with 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Flacco has been horribly inconsistent this season, but his playoff pedigree can’t be overlooked. Flacco doesn’t turn the ball over with the same propensity Luck does, so the Ravens also have that going for them.
In regards to the running game, the Ravens have a firm grasp on that advantage.
Ray Rice finished 11th in the league in rushing yards and had nine touchdowns. Vick Ballard emerged as the starting running back in Week 9 and had a slightly above average season with 814 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Bernard Pierce has been a better backup running back than Donald Brown, especially of late.
Throw in the fact that the Ravens have Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, and it is clearly evident the Ravens have the advantage in the rushing game.
In regards to wide receivers, the Colts have a slight advantage.
Reggie Wayne finished the season seventh in receiving yards and has been a beast in the playoffs throughout his career. T.Y. Hilton had a solid rookie campaign, as he proved to be a big-play threat. Hilton had 861 yards and seven touchdowns, so he definitely made a splash reeling in passes from Luck.
Donnie Avery also chipped in 781 yards and three touchdowns.
The Ravens meanwhile had a modest year from their wide receivers.
Anquan Boldin led the team with 921 receiving yards, but only had four touchdowns. Torrey Smith seemed primed for a big season, but his game was marked with inconsistency.
Smith had 855 yards and eight touchdowns, but he was boom or bust throughout the season. Overall it wasn’t a bad year for Smith by any means, but he needs to be more consistent in order to move up the ranks of the receivers.
Jacoby Jones contributed as the third receiver with 406 receiving yards and a touchdown, but he was much more valuable in the return game.
The tight end battle is pretty even, as the teams have a different approach.
The Ravens seemed to have a good two-man tandem in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. However, Dickson was basically non-existent, allowing Pitta to take the reigns at tight end. Pitta set a career high in all receiving categories as he became a top-10 tight end in most receiving categories.
Pitta has become Flacco’s security blanket, as Pitta is both tough and athletic as some of his touchdown grabs will tell you. He can run you over but also go up high and snatch one over a defender.
The Colts meanwhile have used two rookies for Luck to throw to, one of which was his tight end at Stanford.
Coby Fleener was drafted in the second round and his familiarity with Luck in college seemed like a perfect fit.
However, Fleener had a pretty quiet season as Dwayne Allen, a third-round pick, became the more productive tight end. Allen had nearly double as many yards as Fleener and had one more touchdown than Fleener. The two together pose a nice duo for the future, but Pitta is a better option than Allen or Fleener at this point.
The Ravens also have a slight advantage in offensive line play. It isn’t a huge advantage, but the Ravens’ line has done a better job run blocking while allowing less sacks than the Colts.
The Ravens also own the only offensive lineman head to the Pro Bowl for either team in starting right guard Marshal Yanda.
Overall this is a battle of teams that offenses play much better at home than on the road. Thus, with the advantage in most offensive areas and playing at home against a porous defense, I give the nod to the Ravens offense in this game.
Defensive Edge: Ravens
Admittedly, neither one of these defenses jumps off the page at you this season in regards to numbers. The Ravens basically had their worst defensive season in franchise history when you look at the complete body of work. They finished the year with the 17th-ranked defense yardage-wise and tied for 12th in points allowed per game. The worst part of the defense shockingly was the run defense, as the Ravens ranked 20th in rushing yardage allowed. Some familiar names returned to the Pro Bowl for the Ravens defense, as Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed made their perennial trips to Honolulu. Ngata had an average season, especially for his standards, but has been dealing with nagging knee and shoulder ailments. Reed still was a pass-defending machine despite being hampered by injuries of his own. There was obviously a hole left in the defense after Ray Lewis was injured in Week 7, but Lewis will return in what could be the final game of his career. Lewis figures to give his team a lift as he will be no doubt in rare form. Terrell Suggs has had a very limited impact as well as he has had an injury-plagued season a year removed from his NFL Defensive Player of the Year campaign. The good news is that Lewis, Ngata, Suggs and Bernard Pollard will all play against the Colts on Sunday, so there is reason for optimism for the beleaguered Baltimore defense. More encouraging, despite all those injuries and disappointing efforts, the Ravens’ defense has still performed better than the Colts’ defense in every way. The Colts’ hapless defense has had a miserable season, as Luck and the offense have carried the mail. The Colts’ defense finished the season ranked 26th in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed, so they are vulnerable to say the least. The defense also has not been opportunistic, as they have less sacks and less interceptions than the Ravens’ defense. Robert Mathis is still playing at a Pro Bowl caliber, but he is one of the few Colts’ defenders who have made a difference this season. The coaching of Bruce Arians and the impressive season from Luck and the offense have overshadowed the Colts’ anemic defense. However, with their offense facing a seasoned defense on their own field, the defense won’t be able to just show up like they did for most of the season. Both the numbers and the experience heavily favor the Ravens’ defense in this match-up as the Colts defense will have to have a monster day to give their team a shot to win.
Special Teams Edge: Ravens
This is another area that clearly favors the Ravens. In the return game, Jacoby Jones was the best in the business this year. Jones was the only player in the NFL to return two kickoffs for a touchdown, and one of only five players with both a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown. Jones was selected to his first Pro Bowl for his returning exploits and had more returns by himself than the entire Colts team. The Ravens also own the advantage in the kicking game, especially in regards to production this season. Yes Adam Vinatieri is a playoff legend for his clutch kicks, but he isn’t the same kicker he used to be (see David Akers). The Ravens made a change at kicker before the regular season after problem with clutch kicks and Billy Cundiff last season. Rookie Justin Tucker had a breakout rookie campaign, as he was both reliable and able to drain deep kicks. Tucker had a better percentage and a longer long field goal on the season compared to Vinatieri. Matter of fact, Tucker didn’t miss a field goal under 40 yards or over 50 yards, so he was about as reliable as an undrafted rookie kicker can be. Vinatieri is still the most clutch kicker in recent memory, but Tucker has been great all season and only missed one field goal at home all season. The punting battle is basically a dead heat as Sam Koch and Pat McAfee both had solid seasons. The numbers slightly favor Koch as he has been one of the more reliable punters in the league. Thus, with an advantage of all three phases of the special teams game, the Ravens have another edge in this game.
Coaching Edge: Ravens
There are plenty of moving parts in the coaching battle, especially in regards to Chuck Pagano. Pagano has famously been a feel-good story this year as he left the Colts for chemotherapy to combat his leukemia. Pagano left the Colts after just three games for treatment and returned for last week’s win over the Texans. Pagano is in his first year with the Colts after four years with the Ravens. He spent 2008-2010 as the Ravens’ secondary coach before being promoted to defensive coordinator for the 2011 season. The Ravens’ defense flourished under Pagano as he was promptly hired by the Colts three days after the Ravens were eliminated last season. Bruce Arians did an amazing job filling in as interim head coach while Pagano was away. The respected offensive coordinator finally got a shot at coaching a team and his players clearly responded to him and the situation with Pagano. Arians will definitely be a head coach at some point considering his success and the NFL becoming a pass-happy league. Until then he will continue to guide Luck and the offense. For the Ravens, John Harbaugh is about as steady as they come. All he has done is win a playoff game in all four of his seasons as the Ravens’ head coach. He has now never missed the playoffs in his five seasons and his players absolutely love him. Harbaugh has the longer run of success and has won the only other home playoff game he has coached, which came last season against the Texans. The support staff isn’t terribly strong for Harbaugh though. Jim Caldwell is still green in the play-calling department on offense, and Pagano’s replacement Dean Pees hasn’t had much success this season. However, despite the lack of experience from Harbaugh’s staff, he is still one of the top coaches in the NFL. Arians has done an amazing job this season and Pagano’s battle with cancer has been uplifting, but Harbaugh is the only coach in the NFL to have won a playoff game in four straight seasons. Thus, Harbaugh and the Ravens have the advantage despite taking on an admirable two-headed coaching staff that has worked wonders this season.
Intangibles Edge: Ravens
On the surface, this assessment may sound crazy considering the magical “Chuckstrong” season the Colts have had. It has been one of the more inspirational stories in recent memory in the NFL as the rallying cry for Chuck Pagano has been amazing. The Colts became galvanized under Bruce Arians as the entire team fought like Pagano was fighting. Considering how absolutely dismal this team was last season, there is no finite way to measure how much of an impact Pagano’s fight has meant to this team. However, with the recent news that Ray Lewis will retire at the end of this playoff run, the intangibles factor appears to have swung back in favor of the Ravens. Never will I trivialize cancer and the way it affects millions of people, but Lewis’ retirement is the end of a 17-year era that saw one of the most dominant and intimidating defensive players ever. Lewis himself in his most recent press conference said he has nothing left to prove, so his resume speaks for itself. Can you imagine Lewis this Sunday in his pregame speech on the field, or when he comes charging out of the tunnel? Talk about rallying the troops, as every player on that defense will do whatever it takes to prolong their leader’s career. When you consider that Lewis has been out since Week 7, he was already going to provide a lift to an ailing defense regardless of his retirement status. Now, with the preeminent defensive player of his era potentially a game away from calling it a career, the lift he will give the team will be exponential. Again, the Colts are still riding a waive of Chuckstrong that has been nothing but fun to watch. However, when you consider what a disaster this team was a year ago, there has to be a feeling of complacency as making the playoffs with a rookie-laden team has already been a successful season. Anything now would just be icing on the cake as they don’t appear to be a legitimate AFC champion. When you consider they won't get a home game, or even a game in a dome until the Super Bowl, a championship run seems highly unlikely. While the Colts appear to be entering their prime, the Ravens are in the middle stanza of their prime. Their offensive personnel are entering or in their prime, while the aging defense still has a run left in them. Throw in the Lewis retirement factor, and this game means more to the Ravens. Thus, in a game full of intangibles, I expect the team with the more powerful side story and more at stake to have the edge. The Ravens have won their first playoff game the last four years in a row, and I don’t expect that streak to end this season.