The Indianapolis Colts are beginning the postseason not having played a meaningful game in nearly a month. Many fans, and critics, feel that shouldn’t be the case.
Now everyone gets to see if the Colts’ controversial strategy pays off, though only a three-game winning streak starting Saturday night against the Baltimore Ravens can truly confirm they did the right thing by ignoring the significance of a perfect regular season.
“The ultimate goal is to get to the Super Bowl and win,” defensive end Raheem Brock(notes) said. “Sixteen and oh sounds great, but I don’t really care what the record is because no one remembers that. Unless, of course, you’re 16-0.”
Indianapolis locked up the AFC’s No. 1 seed in Week 15, so team management decided it would pull Peyton Manning(notes) and many other starters during the following week’s game even with the Colts riding a 14-0 record. They took a lead on the New York Jets before the backups entered, going scoreless in the final 25 minutes of a 29-15 defeat.
The decision drew the ire of many Indianapolis fans among others, though the team held firm it was the right move because staying healthy for a title run meant so much more than going 16-0. The Colts (14-2) haven’t played a game that’s mattered since beating Jacksonville on Dec. 17 to extend their league-record regular-season win streak to 23.
They could be rusty after back-to-back losses and a week off, plus they’re 0-3 in the playoffs following first-round byes since 1999. This year’s path appears similar to the one they had in the 2005 season, when they started 13-0 but lost two of three before falling to Pittsburgh in the divisional round.
The next season, Indianapolis won its only trip to the Super Bowl in the Manning era, a run that included a 15-6 divisional win over Baltimore. The Colts have since lost back-to-back playoff openers to San Diego and they could face the Chargers again in next Sunday’s AFC championship game. To get that far, they must defeat a Ravens team which clearly has the momentum edge.
“Every year, we think we’ve got to win it and we feel as a group that we probably should have won more Super Bowls in this decade,” defensive end Dwight Freeney(notes) said. “There’s probably more pressure with that than what’s being said about 16-0.”
The Ravens (10-7) won three of their final four regular-season games to qualify for the playoffs and opened with a rousing 33-14 victory at New England on Sunday.
They also have the benefit of going through a familiar run last year, when they closed the regular season 5-1 to claim a wild-card berth before winning at Miami and Tennessee to reach the AFC title game.
“Our younger guys can draw on the experience of the guys who have been there before, but it’s a different year and a different team and this is a new week,” coach John Harbaugh said.
Six days after holding Tom Brady(notes) to 154 yards and intercepting three of his passes, the Ravens take on Manning, named league MVP for a record fourth time after throwing for 4,500 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Manning has gotten the better of fellow former Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis(notes) and the Baltimore defense. His 97.5 passer rating in nine games against the Ravens is slightly better than his career average, and he’s led Indianapolis to wins in all seven meetings since 2001.
“Nobody’s better than Peyton as far as recognizing defenses and making great decisions in terms of where to go with the ball and those kinds of things, probably the best that there’s ever been at that,” Harbaugh said.
Manning has been sacked just three times over the last six meetings and not once when the teams played Nov. 22, when he was 22 of 31 for 299 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in a 17-15 victory.
Matt Stover(notes) had the winning field goal with 7:02 to play, and the longtime former Raven has been given the kicking duties over Adam Vinatieri(notes), possibly the best clutch kicker in NFL history. Stover has made nine of 11 field goals since signing with Indianapolis in October, and coach Jim Caldwell feels Vinatieri is not fully recovered from midseason knee surgery.
“They are two great ones,” said Caldwell, who is keeping Vinatieri on the active roster. “You know it’s a very unique situation, but that’s kind of the way it is right now.”
While the Colts’ offense comes mostly from the aerial attack, the Ravens’ ground game has been dominant while letting banged-up quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) play more of a game manager’s role. Baltimore has averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the last five weeks while rushing for 1,081 yards.
However, Baltimore has failed to rush for 100 yards in five straight versus Indianapolis while getting held to 3.3 per carry. Rice has 26 attempts for 94 yards in two meetings.
The Ravens have committed 25 turnovers during their seven-game skid in the series and they’ve never won in four trips to Indianapolis, falling 31-3 last season. Manning threw three touchdown passes without an interception while Flacco was picked off three times.
Flacco, 15 of 29 for 136 yards over the last two weeks, is bothered by a hip injury that had him limping in practice this week.
“I feel really good. The most important thing is I woke up Monday feeling better than I did Sunday,” Flacco said. “I feel like it’s all starting to work itself out.”
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