INDIANAPOLIS - How's this for a switch? It's up to the Ravens' offense to win tonight's game.
No, really. This is yet another must-win game, and the Ravens don't have much of a chance to beat the Colts, no matter what miracles the often-miraculous defense pulls off at the RCA Dome, unless the offense goes above and beyond its norm.
Not a promising prospect, based on a season's body of work and on the current state of Jamal Lewis' ankle. On the other hand, the offense hasn't been so bad in recent weeks. The Colts' defense hasn't been all that good all season. The pieces are in place. It can happen.
It had better. Otherwise, the defense once again is on the firing line, not just to hold up its end, but to hold up everyone else's. And as you might have noticed by now, the opposing offense isn't used to being held up.
It's not that the Ravens' defense can't stop the irresistible force of Peyton Manning and his march toward destiny, but everybody understands the odds. Earlier this week, Brian Billick compared the task tonight to trying to beat the Bulls with Michael Jordan: You could let Jordan get his and shut everyone else down and win, and it might work with Manning, too. But he knows it didn't work well with Jordan and it doesn't work that well with Manning.
"Contain him to a certain degree," Billick said. "That doesn't mean, OK, we'll give you four touchdowns but hopefully don't give you the fifth."
That's playing with fire. That takes things rapidly from hoping to stop him to hoping to contain him to hoping he doesn't pull your uniform pants down and spank you in front of a national audience. Ask the Detroit Lions, whom Manning is still picking out of his teeth from Thanksgiving.
Admittedly, this is the kind of defense and scheme that has given Manning trouble, but even under the best circumstances, the Colts aren't going to be kept in the teens. They may not get the three touchdown passes Manning needs to set the single-season record, but they're not going to be kept out of the end zone. (This paragraph is suitable for clipping, carrying into the Ravens' defensive meetings and sticking on the visiting locker room bulletin board. Oh well.)
Now, the Ravens' offense has to keep pace, and do it some other way besides hoping for a bunch of turnovers, short fields or defensive scores (although Edgerrin James, the stealth NFL leading rusher, has lost the handle a few times in his career). The Ravens have to move the ball, keep the ball and score touchdowns. Matt Stover has to wear his leg out on extra points and kickoffs, not on 45-yard field goals after 12-yard drives. (And not on onside kicks, either, but that was a pretty nice gimmick the Titans tried two weeks ago.)
"Managing" isn't going to be enough.
Granted, Kyle Boller doesn't have to turn into a baby Manning (God forbid, since we saw the real baby Manning last week). He doesn't even have to repeat the four-touchdown showing in the win over the Giants. But he has to move them downfield by any means. Knock him as much as you like (he deserves it at times), but lately, he's run for first downs, he's avoided sacks, he's eschewed stupid throws that put his defense in a bind.
He also has done a nice job, you know, completing handoffs, whether to Lewis or Chester Taylor. Do that often enough and get out of the way, and that would go a long way toward making the defense's job easier.
If ever there was a week for Boller to take care of the ball, it's this one. There's one obvious reason, and it's wearing No. 18 for the Colts. There's also the matter of Indianapolis leading the league in take-aways and turnover margin, and being second in sacks. Part of it can be explained by teams having to play recklessly from always playing catch-up. Still, it's been good enough so that the chunks of yardage and points the Colts give up have rarely cost them a game and wasted Manning's efforts.
Any smart team has to respect that. This offense doesn't have to be flashy tonight, or anything more than soul-crushingly boring. But it has to be smart about everything.
So Lewis has to get a rhythm going and Taylor has to maximize his complementary skills. Boller has to sidestep glaring mistakes. Todd Heap has to creep closer to being the pre-injury Heap. The receivers have to lay out, hold onto passes and move the chains. The line has to control matters.
Most of all, they have to make Manning antsy waiting to get back onto the field, maybe even make him think about having to mount a comeback for once. It takes a lot more than a defense to cause an offense like these Colts trouble.
One unit of this team carries a huge responsibility tonight. It's not the one we usually think.