The Colts are in the playoffs after a remarkable performance in the regular season. The Colts now face the Baltimore Ravens, who just found out that their emotional leader Ray Lewis, will be retiring at the end of the season. Andrew Luck will be playing in his first playoff game ever, and Chuck Pagano will be returning back to the place he once called home. Emotions should be high, and it should be a good battle, with the winner going to Denver next week.
What the Colts Need to do to Win
Well, let's start on offense.
Let's look at Luck in winning games. In the Colts' 11 wins this year, Luck has completed 56% of his passes, with 2952 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 turnovers. In the Colts' 5 losses this year, Luck has completed 50% of his passes with 1422 yards, 7 touchdowns and 12 turnovers. What's the one very big difference? Turnovers. The Colts got away with one last week, but had the referees made the right call, that Texans game would have been completely different. When Luck doesn't turn the ball over, they are 4-1. When he turns the ball over once, they are 5-0. When he turns the ball over more than twice, they are 3-3. That's not horrible on paper, except those wins came against the Titans, Jaguars and Lions, all teams with 6 or less wins. Not exactly impressive. My point, Luck cannot turn the ball over, especially against this defense that takes advantage of their opponents' mistakes. Luck also does better when he doesn't force many throws. You can see that with the completion percentage. Luck must be patient, and find the right receiver, because forcing can easily lead to interceptions, and they can't afford to have turnovers in this game.
Then, there's the running game, which should play an important role in the game. The Colts have been running the ball more often, and they shouldn't stop. They seem to excel when they have a balanced attack. They've had balanced attacks in the last 4 games, and they're 3-1 in those games. It's not in their best favor to go pass heavy. They need to have drives, where they kill the clock by giving the ball off to Ballard, and using the play action properly. That first drive against the Texans last week was the ideal drive for the Colts.
Reggie Wayne and TY Hilton will be the Colts' two biggest receivers. That's not a big shock. TY should be targeted on deep routes, and Wayne and Avery should be targeted on the shorter routes. The Colts will try and go deep, which means that TY must have a big game. If he has a big game, that means the deep ball aggressiveness is going well. Reggie Wayne needs to have a big game too. When he's shut down, the Colts offense isn't the same.
The O-line will be the most important group in this next game. They have the tough task of going up against the Ravens front 7. The play of the O-line is very important this game. The front 7 of the Ravens is very scary. They have Suggs, Ngata, and a very emotional Ray Lewis. They will be tough to defend against. The Colts should try and go "max pro" to help protect Luck. If Luck gets protection, the Colts will do well. So, get at least 6 guys blocking. Even 7 guys is not crazy. Anthony Castonzo will have a big matchup against Terrell Suggs. The winner of that battle could decide the match. That's probably the only really scary one on one matchup.
The offensive gameplan should be to have a balanced attack with a neutral passing attack, and finesse running game. By neutral passing attack, I mean by picking your shots. Don't be aggressive and go for the deep ball every other play because he will be intercepted at least once, maybe twice. Ed Reed is good. Don't be too conservative, because when the Colts have a conservative passing attack with limited downfield shots, they end up in close games (look at the KC game, the first Texans game and the 2nd Titans game to name a couple). So, the Colts need to mix it up with the play calling. They should try to go for a lot of short passes and then the deep ball. Like I said, pick their shots. By finesse running game, they should try to utilize their speed. Ballard seems to do well when he runs to the outside. Make sure he runs to the outside, because running to the inside against these guys doesn't work often. Although, if there's a guy who could do, it's Ballard as the running backs that have beaten the Ravens with inside running have had the same frame and playing style as Ballard. However, I like emphasizing on the outside running.
Then, we go to the defense.
The defensive line play was great last game. If the Colts can do anything like that, that would be a huge positive. The Colts will be getting Cory Redding back, and he should be motivated to play against his former team. They need to create penetration up the middle, and get pressure on the quarterback. The D-line got 2 sacks on Schaub last week and that was big. They need to do the same this week. If they can get pressure on Flacco, it may change the game.
The linebackers will have the most important role in this next game. They will be responsible for stopping Ray Rice. I believe the Ravens will run the ball a lot with Rice, so the linebackers must be there to stop him. Rice likes to run it in between the tackles a lot, and because of that the linebackers should have control the inside gaps. Let the outside linebackers play contain. If anything, Bethea will be the last line of defense. He doesn't allow the big touchdowns. Back to the linebackers. Jerrell Freeman should be put against Rice for the majority of the game. He did a fantastic job against Foster last game, and that was because of great gap control and good timing. These linebackers can't miss tackles. They need to be on the ball.
The secondary should play to their strengths. Vontae Davis plays extremely well in man-to-man coverage. Bethea is a good tackler, let him help out in the box. Zbikowski could help out in coverage, although that may not be his strength. The secondary must have a safety playing in coverage each time, especially with Torrey Smith on the other team. There should definitely be a safety playing deep on third downs. The Ravens like to go deep on third downs, and a lot of the time it's to Torrey Smith. Have a safety play deep on his side.
The defensive gameplan should be to stack the box and play aggressively in coverage (with perhaps a safety playing deep). By aggressive, play a lot of man to man.
What the Ravens Need to do to Win
On offense, the Ravens must have a run heavy attack. The must give the ball to Ray Rice at least 27 times. He needs to get the ball. He's a good in between the tackles running back and the Colts aren't great at tackling running backs who run inside. They are good at stopping running backs who run to the outside, so don't run often to the outside. So, give Ray Rice the ball, and with this run heavy attack, the Ravens should take a lot of time off the clock with their long drives.
Then, in the passing game, the Ravens should try and have an aggressive passing attack. They should try and take shots down the field to Torrey Smith. They need to try and put up a lot of points through the air. Then, you get them to lay back and then pound them with the running game. Joe Flacco has a big arm too, so it works well. If they expect to have a vertical passing game, the O-line needs to be there. They must stop Freeney, Mathis and Redding. Oher should handle Freeney, but Mathis will be tough to handle. If that's the case, have Ray Rice block in the backfield. He's a good blocker, and could stop these guys in their tracks.
On defense, The Ravens need to get Luck to do mistakes. He's their offense, and really their whole team. If he doesn't have a good game, the Colts will lose. In the passing game, the Ravens should have Ed Reed play deep and try and cover all the deep shots. The Colts like to take a lot of deep shots, so to prevent that, have Reed and maybe Pollard play deep. If they can take away the deep ball, they will hurt the Colts' offense. Another way to hurt their offense is to eliminate Reggie Wayne. You can double team him, and/or have safety help over the top. If you want to really hurt their offense, get rid of Reggie Wayne. He has a one-on-one advantage against any member of the Ravens' secondary. While Baltimore has done a nice job of limiting tight ends of late, wide receivers can rack up big numbers against this defense. Jimmy Smith can be targeted in this secondary and Cary Williams allows too many big plays, and this defense struggles overall in coverage. Also, Baltimore doesn't rush the quarterback particularly well. They'll need to take out the big targets.
In the running game, they need to take out the outside runs by Vick Ballard. He runs a lot of the outside, and usually with success. So, have the outside linebackers play contain and even have the linebackers follow him. The Colts are trying to have a balanced attack, so they'll be running it quite a bit. For inside run prevention, they can have Pollard come in play in the box, or have the inside linebackers have gap control. There are a lot of ways to stop Ballard on inside runs. Take away the run and make the Colts go pass heavy.
The most intriguing matchup has to be the Colts' O-line vs the Raven's Front 7. The Ravens have some monsters in Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ray Lewis, so the Colts' O-line really has a lot to deal with. However, they did a nice job against JJ Watt, and others last week, so maybe it's a sign of good things to come. The winner of this battle will control how the Colts do on offense. If the Ravens front 7 dominate, then it will be like Week 15 vs the Texans all over again for the Colts. If the Colts O-line wins, then this game becomes a coin flip.
*I'm 4/6 on my bold predictions this year, so let's continue the good picking.*
Neither quarterback will throw an interception.
Baltimore Ravens 24 vs Indianapolis Colts 20 (praying and hoping the Colts win)