In a lot of ways it's the 'old school' Ravens against the 21st century Colts. The Colts had a chance to go undefeated this season, but turned down the opportunity late in the year when they benched their starters. The Ravens, meanwhile, had to play every last second of the season just to get into the playoffs. Here are the three pressing questions I have as I prepare for this matchup.
1. What did we learn from the last time they played?
To win this time, the Ravens need to get in the end zone. In that first game, Ravens safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry both picked off Peyton Manning to set up two of those field goals, but Baltimore never got to Manning with the pass rush. Ravens LB Terrell Suggs did not play in that game, but after watching his sack/forced fumble of Tom Brady that set up the second Ravens' touchdown last week, there's no doubt Suggs has the ability to get to Manning.
In the Week 11 meeting, Joe Flacco was still in passing mode, throwing 35 times. But after last week, when Flacco attempted just 10 passes, it's clear Baltimore has returned to a running team and will try to win the time of possession battle, which they won in Week 11 by five minutes.
2. Can Indy stop the Ravens offense?
Baltimore ran the ball 52 times last week on the road against a Patriots defense that got Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green back from injury. Those three defensive linemen should have been enough to slow down Baltimore's running game, but they didn't as Ray Rice led a ground attack that accounted for 234 yards and four touchdowns.
New England came into the game with the 13th-ranked rush defense, while the Colts come in at No. 24 against the run. The Ravens' offensive line is big and powerful and I expect them to go right at the Colts. Outside runs and toss sweeps are bad ideas against a speed defense, but an inside lead play with LeRon McClain leading Rice or Willis McGahee is the way to go.
The last time these teams met, the Ravens opened the game with a 13-play drive that included eight runs for 33 yards. They got away from the run as that game went on but last week they stuck with the plan. At the end of the first quarter, the score was 24-0 and Baltimore was had attempted 14 runs and just four passes. The Colts better button up their chin straps.
3. What did the lay off do to the Colts?
The Colts are rested, but are they ready? History has not been kind to the Colts teams that shut it down early to rest up for the playoffs. The Colts are 1-4 in playoff games when they don't finish the regular season with all their starters. The only Super Bowl win they have (since moving to Indianapolis in 1984) is when they played all the way through as a wild card.
Manning threw 39 passes in the final two games of the season in spot duty to stay sharp, but he didn't throw a touchdown. Down the stretch, Manning was excellent at avoiding sacks as he wasn't taken down once over his last five games (148 pass attempts).
There was a time when the 3-4 defense gave the Colts some major problems. In the playoff games off a bye they played three teams with 3-4 defenses and lost all three. This season, excluding the Jets game when they pulled their starters, Indy went 6-0 vs. 3-4 defenses. The Colts averaged 26 points and Manning threw 15 touchdowns and was sacked five times in those games. It remains to be seen if they will struggle with the Ravens' 3-4 package.
There's no doubt the Colts' defense will benefit from the extended rest as an undersized speed defense can get beat up more than other defenses. Freeney and Mathis will be fresh and ready to go, but they also have to deal with a Ravens team coming into the game prepared to run it well over 40 times. I think the Colts will be ready this time and win a tight, low-scoring game.