Wild-card weekend preview: Steady diet of Ray Rice should end Colts’ remarkable season

Brian McIntyre

There will be no shortage of intriguing story lines when the Indianapolis Colts visit the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

Following a 2-14 season in 2011, the Colts fired longtime assistant and then-head coach Jim Caldwell, hired Chuck Pagano away from the Ravens and went 11-5 in 2012, becoming just the second team in NFL history to win 11 or more games following a season with two or fewer victories. The Colts accomplished that impressive feat despite Pagano missing three months while undergoing treatment for leukemia. Pagano spent four seasons as a coach with the Ravens, who hired Caldwell last offseason to coach quarterbacks before promoting him to offensive coordinator on Dec. 10.

Ray Lewis, the Ravens' future Hall of Fame linebacker, could be playing in his final game as the 37-year-old announced that he would retire at the end of the 2012 season. Sunday could also be the last game in a Ravens uniform for future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, who will be a free agent in 2013.

[Infographic: NFL wild cards, inside the numbers]

When the Colts have the ball

Quarterback and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck is one of five finalists for the NFL's Rookie of the Year Award after breaking Cam Newton's single-season rookie passing yardage record with 4,374, a number aided by a rookie record-tying six 300-yard passing games. Luck wasn't all that efficient, however, completing just 54.1 percent of a rookie single-season record 627 pass attempts. Luck's completion percentage was 50.0 percent or below in seven of his 16 starts, including in each of the last five games this season. Luck also tossed 18 interceptions, which tied him with Mark Sanchez for second-most in the NFL and resulted in a passer rating of 76.5.

Luck's preferred target is Reggie Wayne, who was targeted on over 30 percent of the Colts' passing plays this season and is headed back to the Pro Bowl after catching 106 passes for 1,355 yards and five touchdowns. However, Wayne is not the only weapon in the Colts' passing game arsenal. GM Ryan Grigson took a flier on former St. Louis Rams second-round pick Donnie Avery, who caught a career-high 60 passes for 781 yards with three touchdowns in the No. 2 role, and used a 2012 third-round pick on T.Y. Hilton, who caught 50 passes for 861 yards, second among NFL rookie receivers this season. Hilton's team-high seven touchdown receptions and his five 100-yard receiving games were tops among NFL rookie receivers and had a great deal to do with Hilton ranking higher than Wayne in Football Outsiders' receiving DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric.

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The Colts used picks in the second- and third-round of the 2012 NFL draft on tight ends Coby Fleener, Luck's former teammate at Stanford, and Dwayne Allen. Despite the history between Luck and Fleener, Allen has emerged as the Colts' No. 1 tight end, taking advantage of a Fleener's mid-season shoulder injury to catch 45 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns. Over the last month, however, Colts tight ends and running backs have become less involved in the passing offense, with those two position groups targeted just a handful of times per game as the aerial attack is funneled through Wayne, Avery and Hilton, which is certainly the way the Colts should attack a Ravens secondary that lost starting cornerback Lardarius Webb to a season-ending knee injury. According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens defense ranks 20th in defending opponents' No. 1 receivers and 30th against No. 2 receivers, but are among the Top 10 against "other wide receivers", tight ends and running backs. Look for Luck to test the Ravens deep with Hilton and Avery, which could open things in the intermediate passing game to Wayne, Allen and Fleener.

Speaking of the running backs, a season-ending ankle injury to 2009 first-round pick Donald Brown has thrust 2012 fifth-round pick Vick Ballard into the lead role in the Colts' backfield. Ballard was second among AFC rookies with 814 rushing yards and had 387 rushing yards and both of his rushing touchdowns in the final four-plus games of the season. Ballard could be asked to take some of the pressure off of Luck and the passing game as injuries to Haloti Ngata and at inside linebacker have made the Ravens vulnerable to the run this season. The Ravens rank 20th, allowing an average of 122.8 yards per game on the ground, while ranking 26th in Football Outsiders' run defense DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric.

When the Ravens have the ball

For a team that was 9-2 and seemingly cruising to another AFC North title entering December, a two-game losing streak prompted head coach John Harbaugh to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replace him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who had never handled play-calling duties at any level. Following a 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos, Caldwell appears to have found his groove.

Over the last two weeks, the Ravens are running back on 55 percent of their plays – as opposed to 41 percent under Cameron. Quarterback Joe Flacco seems to have righted himself, completing 25-of-36 attempts for 309 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-14 win over the New York Giants on Dec. 23, his last meaningful work of the 2012 regular season. Flacco had an up-and-down season, completing 59.7 percent of 531 pass attempts for a career-high 3,817 yards with 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but was sacked 35 times and was often indecisive, holding the ball too long, making some of those sacks unnecessary. When Flacco does get rid of the ball, Anquan Boldin was his top receiver, catching 65 passes for 921 yards and four touchdowns, while Torrey Smith was the big-play receiver, averaging over 17 yards per catch with a team-high eight touchdowns. Smith cooled considerably in December, catching just five passes for 68 yards over a three-game span before coming out of his slump with five receptions for 88 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Giants on Dec. 23. Tight end Dennis Pitta has shown no ill-effects of a training camp hand injury, catching 61 passes for 669 yards and, as one of Flacco's preferred targets in the red zone, seven touchdowns. Football Outsiders has the Colts defense ranked 30th when defending opposing tight ends, so Pitta could be in for a big game.

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Ray Rice remains one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL, carrying the ball 257 times for 1,143 yards and nine touchdowns while adding 61 receptions for 478 yards and a touchdown out of the backfield. The Ravens used a third-round pick in 2012 on Bernard Pierce, who ran for 532 yards and a touchdown while playing in around 20 percent of the Ravens' offensive snaps. The Ravens should ride Rice and Pierce against a Colts defense that ranked 29th when defending the run this season, allowing nearly 140 yards per game and over 5.1 yards per play. According to Football Outsiders, the Colts defense ranked dead last in rush defense DVOA.

How it could go: The Colts are not to be taken lightly. They may be young, and they may lack experience, but they've bonded as a team and have a solid core of legitimate play-makers – Luck, Hilton, Allen and Ballard – on offense who could give an aging Ravens defense a heap of trouble on Sunday afternoon. That said, we expect Caldwell to continually feeding Rice and Pierce, which should grind down an already porous Colts defense, keeping Luck & Co. off the field and advancing the Ravens to the Divisional Playoffs round.

Prediction: Ravens 27, Colts 23

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