Wild Card Preview: Colts-Ravens

Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Indianapolis at Baltimore
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
*Keys to the game: The Ravens are 1-4 in their past five games and momentum is assuredly in the back pocket of the Colts, but Baltimore is loaded with postseason experience and can rotate Pro Bowl-caliber veterans to snap pressure points. Ray Rice and Joe Flacco rested most of the game last week, which won't bring cohesion to an offense out of rhythm as it determines which tempo best suits Flacco. The Colts aren't big or physical, relying on speed, and their run defense has been gouged consistently (137.5 rushing yards per game). The Colts flow to the ball well and excel in pursuit, but holding their ground against downhill running teams is a major weak spot. The Texans used multiple-tight end formations to pick up yards between the tackles in chunks. The Colts are using more four- and five-man routes to spare Andrew Luck from having to go facemask-to-facemask with defenders on every pass attempt. Luck's ability to dissect the intentions of the back end of the Ravens' defense is critical, and the coaching staff can help him identify those keys and giveaways. Rookie RB Vick Ballard came on late in the season and led the team in rushing, but he's not a big-play threat. The Ravens would welcome the recalibration of their staggered run defense ILB Ray Lewis (triceps) could bring.
*Matchup to watch - Colts coach Chuck Pagano vs. Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell: Pagano was defensive coordinator in Baltimore before he was hired by the Colts in January to replace ... Caldwell. Now a first-time play-caller -- for all of one month -- with the Ravens, Caldwell and Pagano can use their insider knowledge of holdover personnel.
*Player spotlight - Colts KR Deji Karim: The former Southern Illinois and Jaguars running back was working as a hotel valet when Indianapolis brought him back to the roster with Donald Brown and Delone Carter injured. Averaging 36.4 yards on kickoff returns in December, he adds a big-play dimension in the special teams the Colts were lacking.
*Fast facts: The Colts' 11-5 record in 2012 represents a nine-win improvement from the previous season, third-best in NFL history. ... The Ravens are the only team to make the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. During this run, they have a 4-0 record in postseason openers.
The Colts can go as far as Andrew Luck carries them, but his road struggles and the maiden voyage into the postseason for a team with 32 players in their first or second season is worrisome against a playoff-tested, veteran Ravens team. Momentum resides with the Colts, who could be this year's team to get hot at the right time.
*Our pick: Colts 24-23

When the Colts run the ball: Handling Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs is a three-down chore. Ngata was rested last week and has the swim and bull-rush moves to melt LT Anthony Castonzo. RB Vick Ballard averages 3.9 yards per carry; his longest run was 26 yards. Edge: Ravens
When the Colts pass the ball: QB Andrew Luck's completion percentage is 54.1, and he's at or below that in each of the past seven games. The Ravens will see a tinge of Ben Roethlisberger in Luck's play. FS Ed Reed had four interceptions in 2012; he's vital to slowing Luck's big-play and third-down success. Edge: Colts
When the Ravens run the ball: The Ravens are 23-3 with Ray Rice when he has 25-plus touches. It'd be surprising if they dodn't add an offensive tackle to the formation and plow the ball between the tackles with Rice to set the tone. The Colts are built to go blow-for-blow against heavy-handed offenses. Edge: Ravens
When the Ravens pass the ball: Protecting Joe Flacco was an ongoing battle for the offensive line, and their offensive tackles allowed a combined 15 sacks. Flacco stands tall in the pocket and typically puts the ball on his receivers' hands when the pocket holds. CB Vontae Davis picked off two passes last week, but the pure speed of Torrey Smith could give him fits. Edge: Ravens
Special teams: K Adam Vinatieri has been good for the Colts, but Ravens rookie Justin Tucker had a great season (30 of 33 field-goal attempts). Deji Karim's kickoff return touchdown last week helped the Colts complete the upset of the Texans and Indianapolis has plentiful speed among its return corps. The Ravens' Jacoby Jones doesn't always practice sound judgment; his three return touchdowns (two kickoffs) and 30.7-yard kickoff return average underscore how dangerous he is against the Colts' weak coverage units. Edge: Ravens
Coaching: Ravens coach John Harbaugh is 5-4 in the postseason. Colts coach Chuck Pagano, formerly the Ravens' defensive coordinator, knows Baltimore's personnel and philosophy well. The feel-good story and chemistry of the Colts counts for something. Will they keep the high-running emotions in check with a green roster in a new and unfriendly environment? Edge: Ravens

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