Colts Countdown to Kickoff: 2010 Playoff Preview

Since a Week 12 victory over the Houston Texans, we knew the Indianapolis Colts were in the playoffs. Two weeks after that, Indy dispatched the Denver Broncos in a Week 14 match-up that guaranteed the Colts home field advantage throughout the postseason. Since then, Indianapolis sports fans have seen their Boys in Blue beat Jacksonville,–always good to show divisional opponents who the king is–give away two games and sit out one more bye week for good measure.

This past month has been filled with talk of how Indianapolis shot themselves in the foot by resting key starters, and letting the wave of momentum they had been riding for 23 straight weeks washout. This argument is flawed in many ways. If the Indianapolis Colts were able to hold momentum through winning the last 9 regular season games of 2008, losing a first round playoff game, not play football for 7 months, comeback and win 14 straight games in 2009, they can hold it during these past four weeks.

The only thing Colts fans learned over this past month is that Curtis Painter will be looking for a new job next year.

So here it is, what everyone in the Circle City has been waiting for, Colts playoff football. No longer will Indy have to hear what they did right or what they did wrong, they can just play. Whom do they play? A hard-running Baltimore Ravens team that looked very impressive in their 33-14 wild-card weekend win over the New England Patriots last Sunday.

Yes, Baltimore looked good against New England last week, and Ray Rice appears to have the ability to run through walls. Nevertheless, even with a dominant performance on the ground from both Rice and back-up running back Willis McGahee, the Ravens will have a tough time of keeping with the Colts. Why is that you ask?  Please allow me to oblige…

The Indianapolis Colts have proven they can handle big time performances by big time players this season.

Example #1:
Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans left opponents slack-jawed most of this season on his way to rushing for over 2,000 yards this past year–he is only the sixth player in NFL history to do so. In two meetings this season, the AP Offensive Player of the Year was held to 9 carries for 34-yards and 2 receptions for 9-yards, yielding 0 touchdowns during Week 5. Week 13 saw Johnson touch the ball more than Vince Young while compiling 27 carries for 113-yards, 6 receptions for 28-yards and 0 touchdowns. Those were Chris Johnson’s lowest and sixth-lowest total yards per game respectively this season.

Example #2:
Against these very same Ravens during a Week 11 game in Baltimore, the Colts held Ray Rice to 20 carries for 71-yards, 7 receptions for 64-yards and 0 touchdowns. Willis McGahee went for 6 carries 25-yards, 1 reception for 7-yards and 0 touchdowns.

Even when marque players have highlight-reel games against the Indianapolis Colts, it has not mattered. The Colts have shown that allowing a player to have a big day against the Indy defense does not translate into victory. The Colts may allow–or not be able to stop–one player from going nuts, but they don’t allow whole teams to play well.

Example #3:
Randy Moss came into downtown Indianapolis and went wild during a Week 10 Sunday night special. In the game that will forever be known as the 4th-and-2 game, Randy Moss had 9 receptions for 179-yards and 2 touchdowns. In all honesty, Moss dominated the Colts secondary that night but still could not change the outcome.

Example # 4:
Week 14 was a record setting day across the board for the Indianapolis Colts. This was the game that became their record tying 22nd straight regular season victory. It was also the day their defense allowed the most prolific pass-catching day in the NFL’s history. Brandon Marshall had a record setting 21 receptions for 200-yards and 2 touchdowns in a loss to Indy. This is the perfect example of the Colts defense saying, ” we will allow your big man to go wild, but the rest of your team is going to have to beat us.”

With the Ravens having such a strong running game, and an injured quarterback, it is a safe assumption that they will try and run the ball as much as possible. Not only is this were their strength on offense is, but it also keeps the NFL’s reigning MVP on the sideline as much as possible. That is a good game plan, but…

Example # 5:
If you can remember back far enough to Week 2 when the Colts played the Miami Dolphins in South Florida, you will remember how the fish executed this strategy to near-perfection. They held the ball for an unbelievable 45 minutes and 3 seconds and still lost. In less than a full quarter of play, Peyton Manning was able to orchestrate a come from behind victory that was just the first of many special games during the Colts season.

All of that said, the Baltimore Ravens are a different team from the squad the Colts dispatched in Charm City two months ago. They have gone back to what has been their strength on offense for years, a ground game.

Sophomore quarterback Joe Flacco seems to have regressed a bit during the second half of the season. Also, he has a hip injury that no one outside of Baltimore’s training room knows the extent of. But for Baltimore to have a legitimate chance of advancing on Saturday night, Flacco will have to do much better than his 4 completions on 10 attempts for 40-yards through the air against New England last week.

While the Colts have to worry about Ray Rice running away from them while on defense, Indy will have to take notice of who is running at them while on offense. The Ravens have been perennial playoff contenders over the past decade thanks mostly to a hard-hitting, fast and in-your-face defense that shows no fear.

Last week they made Tom Brady look foolish in Foxborough. The question is, how good was New England? Randy Moss checked out several weeks earlier and was just going through the motions on Sunday. Brady’s favorite target Wes Welker was watching the game from the owner’s luxury suite thanks to a torn ACL and MCL sustained during a Week 17 loss–somewhere in Indiana Bill Polian feels vindicated–and Brady himself is supposedly dealing with broken ribs and a broken finger.

As good as Baltimore looked last week, the Colts match-up well against B-more’s strengths and weaknesses. The Raven’s big defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is the equivalent of a Samoan black hole, eating up runs all season long. Not such a big deal when you are playing a team like the Colts that was ranked dead last in total rushing offense this season.

When Rex Ryan went to New York to coach the Jets, he took with him a large portion of the Ravens blitz package. Baltimore still gets after the quarterback often. However, even with linebackers like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson applying pressure all day, they still have to get to Peyton Manning who just does not like to get hit. Manning is the best at reading defenses, and has an ability to get rid of the ball almost as soon as it is snapped.

This is a perfect transition into where the Ravens are weakest, and the Colts the strongest. The secondary of Baltimore is one of the worst secondaries left in the playoffs. Through injury and inexperience, the Ravens have allowed opponents point totals to reach sizes once thought impossible against Baltimore. Yes the addition of Ed Reed, who is back from injury, helps a lot, but he can’t be in multiple places at once and the Colts have more than one viable receiver.

On the offensive side of the ball, Indianapolis is pretty transparent. We have talked about it all season. If you shut down Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark than Peyton Manning will just look to the slot and feed Austin Collie or look to find Pierre Garcon down the sideline. If the Colts can get a few productive runs out of Joseph Addai,–who looked much better during the second half of the season–Donald Brown or even Chad Simpson/Mike Hart and keep Baltimore’s defense honest, things should go well in the Circle City.

All of the second-guessing and confusion that came with the Colts decision to rest starters during the final two weeks of the regular season is now over. The Colts don’t have the added pressure of pursuing perfection, so it is time for that argument to ride off into the sunset. This is what they have been playing for. There are still questions that have to be answered before we really know how good this Indianapolis football squad is.

Can the Colts put it together for a full 60 minutes on offense? Since their Week 6 bye, I have written about how the Colts have looked amazing on offense at times. Maybe it was a few offensive series, maybe it was a whole quarter where they were firing on all cylinders but the Colts have yet to put four quarters of solid offense together. If they can do this in the postseason no one will stop them, but it is a big if.

Will the underachieving Colts of playoffs past come back to haunt Indy? Everyone has seen the statistics. The Colts are 7-8 in the playoffs under Manning. They have lost at home during the divisional playoff round, after a first round bye, in their past three attempts. ( 1999, 2005, 2007) This year’s playoff run will go far in determining how history views these Colts, and Peyton Manning. And while the Colts are aware of these numbers, I don’t believe a team lead by Manning and a front office as knowledgeable and prepared as Indy’s will worry about such stats. Those were different teams in  different circumstances.

Will resting key starters come back to hurt the Colts. No. There might be some rust during the first quarter that needs to be removed, but a hard-hitting Ravens team will help speed up the process with their in-your-face style of play. Now that it is playoff time, having a well rested Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney hounding Joe Flacco seems more important than 16-0.

The Ravens are a streaky veteran team who looked great last week and are often touted as road warriors who are not afraid to play anywhere. True, they don’t seem to care where they play. But that does not mean the 60,000+ Hoosiers that will be going manic at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Saturday night won’t affect their game.

In the past three weeks the Ravens could not put away divisional foe Pittsburgh and guarantee themselves a playoff spot in Week 16 action. They lost 23-20. They were unconvincing in a Week 17 victory against Oakland, and needed the help of Jamarcus Russell (two INTs and one lost fumble) to advance to the playoffs. Finally, they beat-up on an uninspired over-hyped New England team.

The Ravens are a formidable playoff opponent, but if the Colts can hold them from any big plays on special teams and from allowing the Baltimore defense from scoring, the Colts should be able to dictate the pace of the game. The Ravens will look to shut down Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark as much as possible. If successful, a huge burden will fall on the shoulders of young receivers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon.

Remember, Collie is just a rookie and Garcon is a second year player who has to balance his first real playoff experience with the fact that many of his relatives are still unaccounted for in his parent’s home country of Hati, which was left in rubble from a massive earthquake earlier this week.

My prediction is that the Colts want to prove how good they are and will. During the season, Peyton & Co. showed Indianapolis that they could win in a blowout, in a close game, in fourth quarter comeback and improbable circumstances. This week they will show Indy that they can win in the playoffs.

The game will be played on Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. on CBS WISH TV or if you rather listen to the old radio, 97.1 HANK FM will call the game.

No matter what the final result is this Saturday, come on back to on Monday where I will have a complete wrap up of what went down in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Lucas Oil Stadium
500 S Capitol Ave
Indianapolis, IN 46225