RAVENS: Quarterback Joe Flacco set a single-season career high in passing yards (3,817) but the Ravens need him to be a lot more consistent in the playoffs. In nine career playoff games, Flacco has eight touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 54.3 percent completion percentage. The Ravens finished the regular season ranked 15th in the NFL in passing offense with an average of 233.7 yards per game. Anquan Boldin had a team-leading 65 catches while Torrey Smith has eight touchdown receptions.
COLTS: The top overall pick in the draft, Andrew Luck lived up to his billing, throwing for 4,374 yards to set a rookie record for a quarterback. Luck threw 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions but he’s gone three straight games without being picked off. Veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne bounced back from a quiet 2011 season to finish sixth in the NFL with 106 catches and seventh with 1,355 receiving yards. Luck, who has been sacked 41 times, loves to take deep shots to T.Y. Hilton and Donnie Avery.
RAVENS: Running back Ray Rice had his worst statistical season since his rookie year but he still scored 10 touchdowns and was one of three NFL players to post 1,000 yards rushing and 400 receiving. Rice has been relatively quiet in eight career playoff games, scoring three touchdowns and averaging 55.5 rushing yards per contest. Rookie backup Bernard Pierce has provided another dimension to the running game and is coming off his two best games of the season. He’ll play a key role.
COLTS: Indianapolis has done enough on the ground to keep defenses honest with rookie Vick Ballard, a fifth-round pick out of Mississippi State, leading the way with 814 rushing yards. Under offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, the Colts averaged 27.5 rushing attempts and 104.4 rushing yards per game, their highest totals since 2007. Luck also is a threat to run as he finished second among AFC quarterbacks with 255 rushing yards. He also had a team-leading five rushing touchdowns.
RAVENS: The big question will be what impact the return of middle linebacker Ray Lewis has on the Ravens’ defense, specifically on its ability to stop the run, an area that has improved recently. The last two weeks, the Ravens held the opposition to a combined 114 rushing yards. The two games before that, they allowed 335 yards on the ground. The improved health of Dannell Ellerbe and the return of safety Bernard Pollard, who is strong against the run, should further bolster the group.
COLTS: Only three teams in the NFL allowed more yards on the ground than the 137.5 rushing yards per game that the Colts surrendered. Just two weeks ago against the Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis was gouged for 352 yards on the ground. They did hold the Houston Texans to 102 rushing yards last week and the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson to 60 yards rushing in Week Two. Linebacker Jerrell Freeman leads the team with 203 tackles.
RAVENS: Will this be Ed Reed’s final game in Baltimore, too? The big-play safety has been at his best in the playoffs. His eight playoff interceptions are the second most all-time and the most among active players. He heads a secondary that has gotten better, thanks to the play of cornerbacks Corey Graham and Chykie Brown among others. Cary Williams could draw the assignment of guarding Reggie Wayne. Against Andrew Luck, the Ravens will need to get more from Terrell Suggs and their pass rush.
COLTS: The Colts have four interception returns for touchdowns this season, including two by Darius Butler, but they have also given up 23 touchdown passes and allowed 236.8 passing yards per game. Despite the accomplished pass-rushing tandem of Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, the Colts finished the regular season tied for 23rd in the NFL with 32 sacks. Former Raven safety Tom Zbikowski started 11 games for the Colts and could return Sunday from a knee injury.
RAVENS: It was not a good regular-season finale for Ravens’ special teams as kicker Justin Tucker missed a field goal, punter Sam Koch averaged 36.6 yards per punt and returner Jacoby Jones found little room. However, the performances did little to diminish the strides that this group made this season. Koch set team single-season records in gross punting average (47.1) and net average (40.8), Tucker hit 30-of-33 field-goal attempts and Jones had three return scores and made the Pro Bowl.
COLTS: Veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri hasn’t had a particularly good year, missing seven of 33 field-goal attempts but he’s one of the clutchest kickers in NFL history. He has 24 game-winning field goals in the final minute of the fourth quarter or in overtime. If the game rests on his foot, the Colts will feel pretty good about their chances. Speedy rookie T.Y. Hilton is extremely dangerous on punt returns while Deji Karim had a 101-yard kickoff return touchdown last week.
RAVENS: The Ravens lost four of their last five games heading into the playoff and barely played any of their starters in the regular-season finale. But it would be foolish to think that the Ravens will come out flat in front of their home fans and in Lewis’ likely last game at M&t Bank Stadium. The energy in the stadium should be off the charts. Thirty-four players on the Ravens’ 53-man roster have playoff experience. The Ravens have won a playoff game in each of their last four seasons.
COLTS: Riding a wave of emotion stemming from head coach Chuck Pagano’s battle against leukemia, the Colts were the NFL’s biggest surprise, winning five of their last six games to make the playoffs after a two-win 2011 season. The nine-game improvement from last year was the second greatest turnaround in league history. The Colts were 9-1 this year in games decided by one possession or less. Indianapolis is 2-0 against the Ravens in the playoffs but 28 players on their 53-man roster have never been in a postseason game.
It seems that a handful of pundits changed their opinion on this game after Lewis made his retirement announcement earlier in the week. Indeed, the Ravens should get an emotional boost from both Lewis’ return and from playing in front of the home crowd. However, I don’t see that being the difference in the game. I think the difference will be Flacco’s ability to make plays down the field and Rice being able to consistently move the chains.
Ravens, 24-20Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun