First of all, let me state right off the bat that I think the Colts, who were 6.5 point favorites over the Baltimore Ravens at last check, are going to win this weekend.
Indianapolis has a four-time MVP at the most important position on the field, they are at home, and they have tons of guys with successful playoff experience.
As I stated in this week’s NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Picks and TV Schedule post:
…I think the Ravens are going to make Colts fans nibble on their nails until the end. That’s when the NFL’s MVP will take over and finish the job…as he’s done so many times this year.
So, why should Colts fans who get tickets to this weekend’s Indy-Baltimore playoff game, as well as those who will be watching on TV, be ready to do some nail nibbling while watching this weekend’s Colts-Ravens divisional round matchup?
Let’s count out a few of the reasons and why.
Reason #1: A loss in their opening playoff game would not unprecedented for the Colts
When Philadelphia lost their playoff opener to the Dallas Cowboys, it was the first time that Andy Reid had ever lost his opening round playoff game. The Cowboys, for their part, had not won a playoff game since Bill Clinton was president. And when the Ravens trounced the Patriots in Foxboro last weekend, it was the first time that the duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick had lost a home playoff game.
For all three of these examples, a pretty significant amount of history had to be overcome.
If the Colts were to lose this weekend to Baltimore, however, it would actually be the 5th time in the last 8 years that the Colts would have lost their playoff opener. Interestingly, it would also be the second time that they finished the regular season 14-2 and lost their playoff opener at home (thanks idiot kicker!).
Image credit: screen grab from Tony Dungy’s Wikipedia page
In summation, the Ravens aren’t exactly marching into Indianapolis facing years and years of opening playoff game dominance by the home team. On the bright side for Indy, at least they aren’t playing San Diego…yet.
Reason #2: Joe Flacco may not be an elite QB yet, but his playoff winning percentage is 75%
Look, no one is going to compare Joe Flacco to Peyton Manning, or even to the QB that Flacco’s Ravens just disposed of, Tom Brady. But 75% is 75%, and when it comes time for the playoffs a quarterback’s #1 job is to win, by any means necessary.
This past Sunday, Flacco was Derek Anderson-eque in completing four passes for 34 yards. During the Ravens’ three-game run to the doorstep of the Super Bowl last year, he did not throw for more than 161 yards in any of their playoff games.
So the numbers are underwhelming…except for one: 75%.
Granted, Flacco’s 75% comes in a much smaller sample size and without a Super Bowl ring, but it is better than Peyton Manning’s playoff winning percentage. Just saying. It doesn’t mean Flacco is better than Manning, just that the Flacco is not so inferior to Manning as to render Baltimore hopeless this weekend.
Reason #3: Running the ball and stopping the run have been more important so far during this year’s playoffs than they were during the regular season
Throughout the regular season we heard about how important it is for teams to be able to chuck the pigskin all across the field and pick up yardage in big chunks. And it’s true. Look no further than the four teams with playoff byes: the Colts, Chargers, Saints, and Vikings. All four were in the top 8 in the NFL in passing yards per game.
But then a funny thing happened once the NFL calendar turned to the playoffs. Running and stopping the run became the keys to victory. Don’t believe me? Look at the team rushing totals by game from Wild Card weekend:
- New York Jets – 171 yards rushing on 41 carries | Cincinnati Bengals – 171 yards rushing on 22 carries
- Dallas Cowboys – 198 yards rushing on 35 carries | Philadelphia Eagles – 56 yards rushing on 13 carries
- Arizona Cardinals – 156 yards rushing on 23 carries | Green Bay Packers – 90 yards rushing on 20 carries
- Baltimore Ravens – 234 yards rushing on 52 carries | New England Patriots – 64 yards rushing on 18 carries
As you can see, the team that ran the ball more often won each game this past weekend. Additionally, save for the Jets-Bengals game in which the two teams tied with 171 yards rushing, the team that ran the ball for more yardage won the game.
Now, you can cite the variables of each game all you like and talk about how the losing teams got down by a lot so they had to pass the ball and blah, blah, blah. Well guess what? If Philly or New England, in particular, could have run the ball early then maybe they would not have dug themselves such huge holes.
What does this mean for the Ravens-Colts game? Well, just look at the raw regular season numbers:
- Rushing Offense: Baltimore Ravens – 137.5 yards per game (5th) | Indianapolis Colts – 80.9 yards per game (32nd)
- Rushing Defense: Baltimore Ravens – 93.2 yards per game (5th) | Indianapolis Colts – 126.5 yards per game (24th)
It is certainly debatable whether running the ball and stopping the run truly are still the keys to playoff success in today’s NFL. It is not debatable, however, which team – Baltimore or Indianapolis – has the advantage in these two categories heading into this weekend’s game.
If you’re a run the ball/stop the run guy, you have to like Baltimore this weekend.
Reason #4: Baltimore has a better turnover margin
While many people have begun to downplay the old adages of running the ball/stopping the run as the keys to victory in the NFL, no one has tried to argue that turnovers are less important. In fact, because of how explosive offenses are in today’s NFL, protecting the football is probably even more important than ever before.
Look no further than the Ravens’ first round matchup with New England. Tom Brady was throwing devastating interceptions in the Patriots’ territory before most of the fans were even in their seats. Baltimore converted the turnovers into points and never looked back.
Here were the turnover numbers from this past weekend’s games:
- New York Jets – 0 | Cincinnati Bengals – 2
- Dallas Cowboys – 1 | Philadelphia Eagles – 4
- Arizona Cardinals – 1 | Green Bay Packers – 3
- Baltimore Ravens – 2 | New England Patriots – 4
Total it up and the winners turned the ball over four times collectively. The losers turned it over 13 times.
Now, here are the regular season numbers for the Ravens and Colts: for the season, the Ravens’ turnover margin was +10; the Colts’ turnover margin was +2.
The NFL MVP tossed 33 TDs this season, but did throw it to the other team 16 times, the most INTs he has thrown since 2003. Of course, when you cannot run the ball consistently you have to throw the ball more often, so Manning’s INT numbers are, in part, due to the volume of pass attempts he had this season (571, also his most since 2003).
What is ominous for Manning and Colts fans is that the Ravens are not the kind of team against whom you want to be throwing INTs. Baltimore finished 5th in the league in INTs with 22, and that came with Ed Reed missing weeks 13-16.
More importantly, not only can Baltimore pick the ball off, but they try to do something with it. The Ravens had 95 returns yards on their three picks of Tom Brady this past weekend. For the season, the Ravens picked up an extra 346 yards on INT returns, an average of 15.7 yards per INT. Indianapolis had 16 interceptions this year and averaged 10.4 yards per return.
The takeaway: Peyton Manning needs to protect the ball better than he did during the regular season, or the Ravens could produce one or two game changing INTs.
So, with the four facts above working in Baltimore’s favor, the Ravens are a great upset pick, right? As Lee Corso would say, not so fast my friend.
I do believe that the Ravens are an excellent spread pick with the current points they are being given by the oddsmakers (6.5), but I don’t think they are stealing this victory from Indianapolis.
Remember this: the Ravens and Colts played earlier this year, a game that Indianapolis won 17-15 at home. In that game:
- Peyton Manning threw two interceptions that the Ravens returned for 56 yards.
- The Ravens also ran the ball six more times for 22 more yards than Indy did.
- Joe Flacco even played well, acting as more than just a game manager. He went 23-35 and threw for 256 yards, although he did not throw a TD.
Based on the reasons I tossed out above, you’d think that Baltimore would have won the game. Yet, while the Ravens were able to “ugly it up” and force Indianapolis to play a low scoring game that fit more into the Ravens’ style, the Colts still found a way to win at home.
That is why, despite the fact that Indy has lost their playoff opener three out of the last four years, and despite the fact that the Colts might be a bit rusty early, and despite the fact that Joe Flacco moved on last weekend while Tom Brady went home, and despite this, that, or whatever other fact you or I want to throw out there, I still think the Colts will find a way to win.
The reason? Peyton Manning.
Ultimately, you are going to be right a lot more often than you are wrong siding with the team that has the best quarterback. Peyton Manning is the best quarterback in the NFL right now, and perhaps the best ever. At a minimum, he certainly is in the conversation among the all-time greats at the position.
Thus, despite a pretty overwhelming case that I think can be made for the Ravens, I’m not picking against Peyton and the Colts at home.
It won’t be easy, but like they did earlier this year, I think the Colts will find a way to dispose of the Ravens and advance to the AFC Championship game.
What do you think?
Who will win this weekend's Colts-Ravens matchup in the divisional round of the AFC Playoffs?
- Indianapolis Colts (38%, 9 Votes)
- Baltimore Ravens (63%, 15 Votes)
Total Voters: 24
Yes, the same Chargers that have beaten them two straight years in the playoffs.
So here is my advice for Colts fans: enjoy what should be a hard fought victory this weekend. You know as well as I do that unless Mark Sanchez and the Jets upset Screaming Philip Rivers and the Chargers in San Diego, next weekend will most likely be the end of the road for what once looked like it could be a truly magical season.
But hey, you can’t win ’em all. Just ask your coach and GM.
* – Manning Face photo credit: SportsFrog.com
* – Joe Flacco photo credit: Sports Agent Blog