Bengals 23, Ravens 17
Strategy: Believing that upgraded health in the postseason trumps building momentum, the Ravens rested injured players and key starters. And it worked as there were no serious injuries. The offense was run differently to accommodate the multi-dimensional skills of backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, an excellent scrambler. The AFC North champions evaluated younger receivers Deonte Thompson and David Reed and rookie lineman Gino Gradkowski, the Ravens' future center. While Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Marshal Yanda and Anquan Boldin watched from the sideline, the defense held out Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Bernard Pollard, Ray Lewis and Albert McClellan.
Personnel: It was a glorified junior varsity lineup for the Ravens as Bengals coach Marvin Lewis kept in his first-team defense. Taylor is an athletic change of pace who can dart out of the pocket for big yardage, as he did on a 28-yard run. Bernard Pierce is a rugged backup not afraid to take on big linebackers, pounding a head for 89 yards. Bryant McKinnie played 73 snaps and mostly struggled, perhaps revealing why coaches have been reluctant to insert the former Pro Bowl left tackle. Gradkowski is much smaller than Matt Birk, but held up solidly. Michael Oher didn't fare well at right tackle, allowing two sacks. Anthony Allen got rewarded with some carries and scored his first NFL touchdown. Inside linebackers Josh Bynes and Dannell Ellerbe flowed well to the football, combining for 15 tackles, with two for losses by Ellerbe.
What went right: Ma'ake Kemoeatu was much more active than usual, notching four tackles, two for losses, with one sack. Jimmy Smith moved better than he had in recent weeks since returning from sports hernia surgery. Paul Kruger and Bryan Hall got to the quarterback with crisp moves, and Arthur Jones was aggressive against the run. Ed Dickson became a focal point with six receptions for 64 yards. Thompson and Reed combined for seven catches for 70 yards, keeping the chains moving with quick moves and decent hands.
What went wrong: Rice and offensive guard Bobbie Williams lost their cool against brash rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict, triggering personal fouls. Nobody really blocked Burfict, who racked up 18 tackles. Williams didn't excel in relief of Yanda, not moving his feet quickly enough. Kruger and Chris Johnson got lost in the open field, easily eluded by Marvin Jones on his touchdown. Punter Sam Koch had his worst game of the season, averaging only 36.6 yards. Pro Bowl return man Jacoby Jones had an off game. Field position was a big problem.
Turning point: As Oher got shoved backward, Taylor was intercepted by defensive end Michael Johnson, whose 14-yard touchdown return sealed the game by boosting the Bengals' lead to 23-14 in the fourth quarter.
X-factor: Can the Ravens recapture the dominant form they showed against the Giants when they made an all-out effort to win unlike their half-hearted attempt in Cincinnati? That's the biggest looming questions as the Indianapolis Colts come to town for Sunday's first-round playoff game.
Colts 28, Texans 16
Strategy: The Colts' approach offensively is built around the strong right arm and presence of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. He's the triggerman for Bruce Arians' offense that mixes deep-strike capabilities with move-the-chains elements. Luck is extremely accurate. When he's playing it safe, he throws it short to athletic rookie tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. When he wants to sling it downfield, Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Donnie Avery create separation. The Colts have a power running game led by rookie runner Vick Ballard, and run some off-set I-formation principles with Allen lining up in the backfield at fullback. The defense reflects Chuck Pagano's desire to harass the quarterback with bookend pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who are now outside linebackers in his 3-4 scheme.
Personnel: It's a relatively ordinary offensive line, which deters Luck a bit. He completed only half his passes against the Houston Texans, but delivered two touchdowns and didn't have an interception. Luck is mobile, smart and gutsy. Ballard is a hard-running late-round draft pick. Hilton has rare speed, a true 4.3 sprinter who can frustrate cornerbacks. He's extremely dangerous. Freeney and Mathis are past their respective primes, but still have great pass-rushing skills. Cornerback Vontae Davis plays like a man with something to prove after being traded out of Miami. Pat Angerer is a gritty linebacker, but is vulnerable against shifty runners like Arian Foster, who gained 96 yards with a touchdown on 16 carries. Indianapolis needs a bigger, more physical front seven to prevent teams from running roughshod over them the way the Kansas City Chiefs did in piling up 352 rushing yards. Former Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski was sidelined with a knee injury.
What went right: Luck got the football out of his hands quickly for the most part, utilizing a clean release and good rhythm as he hit Hilton in stride for a 70-yard touchdown pass in the second half. Luck's hard count on his cadence disrupted the defense. He also found Hilton on a bubble screen for a first down. Pop passes to Fleener and Allen were effective gambits. The line got a good push for Ballard in the red zone and also pulled well.
What went wrong: The offensive line is a bit suspect, not populated by top-of-the-line starters. They do have good chemistry. The run defense is vulnerable, prone to missed tackles and being driven off the football at the point of attack. The Colts' secondary had trouble containing Andre Johnson as he did what he wanted to the tune of a dozen receptions for 141 yards.
Turning point: Deji Karim busted up the middle untouched on a kickoff return for a 101-yard touchdown, kicking into high gear to retake the lead and the momentum in the third quarter.
X-factor: It's impossible to measure the impact of how a football team inspired by Chuck Pagano's battle with leukemia will perform. It's not hyperbole, though, to say an emotional team is coming to Baltimore, determined not to let down Pagano. The Ravens will need to match the Colts' intensity.
Aaron WilsonCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun