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Eyes in the Backfield-Ravens (playoffs full)

18 Things to Watch for During Saturday Night’s Colts/Ravens Game

It’s playoff time

It’s finally upon us.  All the talk, all the waiting, all the hopes and fears of an entire season will come to a head on Saturday night at the Luke.  We’ll all be watching.  Here’s what to keep your eye on:

1.  Watch the shift.  The Ravens have undergone a total makeover since last we saw them. Early in the season, they let fly with Flacco.  Check out his attempts and passing yards per game:
Through Week 13: 34 attempts, 240 yards
Week 14-Playoffs:21 attempts, 153 yards
40% fewer attempts and 34% fewer yards

They leaned far more heavily on their running game:

Combined Rice, McGahee rushing attempts and yards per game:
Through Week 13: 21 attempts, 96 yards
Week 14-Playoffs:30 attempts, 191 yards
43% more attempts and 100% more yards

This isn’t the same Ravens offense we faced in November. It’s a run first attack.  Tip to Rick for the stats.

2.  Watch the goat.  Last year, Gijon Robinson’s inexcusable failure to lay even a mitt on Dobbins ruined the Colts season.  He was inactive for the first game with the Ravens, but his replacement, Tom Santi, had a huge day catching the ball as Dallas Clark was largely shut down.  Robinson could once again be a huge factor in a playoff game and has a chance to redeem himself.

3.  Watch Ed Reed.  The great Baltimore safety will be a central figure in this game.  Baltimore must protect their weak corners.  Sure they had some picks last week, but none of them were particularly great plays.  Reed’s pick of Manning in the first game was one of the key plays of the day.  The Ravens cannot beat the Colts without getting scores or at least good field position from their defense, so Ed Reed’s exploits will be on center stage.

4.  Watch real Colts.  Powers, Hayden, Mathis, Freeney are all going to playing at once.  Addai, Brown and Garcon will too.  For all the hand wringing over the Jets game, people have forgotten that the Colts haven’t been able to trot out this starting line up all season.  Indy has battled massive injuries all season and is finally healthy.  There’s a good chance we see a dominant Colts team unlike any that has taken the field this year.

5.  Watch the hip.  The Ravens say there is no problem with Joe Flacco’s hip, but his play says otherwise.  He’s been awful in recent weeks.  He’s starting to get a rep as being the hot young QB with a 3-1 playoff record, but people forget that once upon a time Jack Delhome was 5-1 in the playoffs with much better stats than anything Flacco has done.  Now he’s generally regarded as one of the worst QBs in football.  Judging QBs by a few playoff starts is always a mistake.

6.  Watch the turnovers.  This really could be #1.  The key to the game for the Colts will be ball protection. The Ravens NEED turnovers to score. If the Colts don’t turn over the football, they will win the game handily.  If the Ravens turn it over, the Colts will win handily.  The Colts have been doomed by the random fumble in postseasons past (both NE losses, Chargers 2007).  The fumble by Santi was a huge play in the first game.  Hold on to the ball, Horse.

7.  Watch the overlooked greatness. Ray Rice had a monster season but gets no press at all.  Personally, I value 2000 yards from scrimmage as one of the real accomplishments in today’s NFL for a running back.  Rice had 1300 yards and 72 catches.  He IS the Ravens offense.  The Colts need to hold him to the kind of numbers they limited Chris Johnson to, and they’ll be fine.  Fortunately, they are unlikely to give up the kind of back breaking long run the Patriots did last week.

8.  Watch the kickers. The Colts and Ravens enter the postseason with major question marks at kicker.  Neither Cundiff nor Stover inspires much confidence from either fan base.  Stover needs to just hope he can hit the gimmies, because Indy most likely won’t be testing him from beyond 45 yards.  Cundiff could easily blow a huge kick. In a game that figures to be close, it could come down to the kickers.

9.  Watch the time. With the Colts offense, it all comes down to protection.  If Manning has time, he will carve up the Ravens.  In the 2005 nightmare, the offensive line collapsed and Manning was running for his life all day.  The line has done a respectable job keeping 18 clean, and hopefully CJ’s toe will hold out for four quarters on Saturday night.  If Manning doesn’t get hit, the Colts will win.

10.  Watch for rust. Look, I think this is the most overblown story around, but should the Colts fail to put up at least 13-17 points in the first half, everyone will say it was because of rust.  Fortunately, the Colts have the kind of team that can overcome a slow start. Personally, I think they score early in the game and execute perfectly ala 2007, but I suppose we all have to keep our eyes on it.

11.  Watch the crowd.  Fired up? Drunk?  Surely?  Purple?  Who knows.  If the crowd isn’t overwhelmingly blue and white and psyched out of their minds, blame will fall at the feet of Polian.  The worst case scenario is what happened in 1999 when a group of 10,000 Titans fans all bought tickets in the end zone and actually disrupted the Colts’ offense.  I doubt that will happen.  I expect the crowd to be loud, but antsy.  If the Colts get up early, the building will come unglued.

12.  Watch the Frenchman.  It’s been a hard week for Garcon, but more than the distractions, everyone should worry about his health and rhythm.  While the rest of the offense played more than enough recently, Frenchy was hurt.  He had a HUGE game against the Ravens earlier this year, and you can expect Peyton to key in on him for a deep ball early in the game.  The Colts need Garcon to play at his best if they hope to make a deep run in these playoffs.

13.  Watch for separation. As in the ball separating from the runner when Clint Session comes a knockin’.  Session has been huge for the Colts all year, and in a game where the Ravens hope to pound the ball in a physical way, Session should have plenty of opportunities to pop one lose.  At the very least the Colts need to limit the Ravens ground game to around four yards a carry.  If they can do that, Baltimore will have to throw some, and that puts them right where the Colts want them.

14.  Watch the “clutchest” Colt.  No matter how bad the playoff loss, it seems like Dwight Freeney has always shown up large. He single handedly kept the Colts in the 2005 game and had a huge sack last year against the Chargers.  Considering that the Ravens left tackle Jarred Gather is gimpy, I think it’s likely we see Freeney make multiple huge plays on Saturday night.

15. Watch the comeback. The Colts have seven fourth quarter comebacks on the year, so even if the Ravens do jump out to the kind of lead they did last week, the Colts are equipped to come back and make a game of it.  If the game goes poorly early that won’t necessarily mean that it’s over.

16.  Watch the #2s.  Both teams have reasons to expect big things out of their second running backs.  Don Brown should be fully healthy for the first time in a couple of months, and the Colts will be looking for him to post a big play.  McGahee has had a nice complementary run of late as the Ravens #2 and is obviously a formidable runner.  Neither defense will be able to relax when the primary back goes out.  The team that gets more production from their second back could well be the winner.

17.  Watch one of the great matchups of all time. Manning verses Ray Lewis has been a one sided affair, but it certainly defines a decade.  You have to hand it to Lewis, Zach Thomas…done (essentially).  Urlacher…done (more or less).  Seau…done.  But Lewis keeps hitting a decade later.  Enjoy the high stakes chess match while you can because unless these two teams meet in the playoffs next year, there may never be another chance.

18.  Watch for vindication. If the Colts come out of this game looking stronger than they have all year (and I think they will), it certainly vindicates the brass’s decision to rest players.  Now, I’ll still never accept HOW they went about it, but the decision to rest itself will be justified.  I expect the Colts to dominate from start to finish allowing a late TD by the Ravens to make the final score respectable.  DZ says Indy 24 Ravens 10.  Demond likes the Colts 30 to 9.