In this game-day staple, blogger Matt Vensel makes four sometimes-courageous predictions for the game. All he asks is that you don’t hold it against him whenever those predictions end up being embarrassingly wrong.
For the fifth straight year, the Ravens are back in the playoffs. I’m sure in a private moment, one with truth serum or a few adult beverages involved, some players would admit that this year’s team isn’t as good as the one that came up just short in last year’s AFC title game. But the key players are back -- including linebacker Ray Lewis, who is returning from a torn triceps -- and anything can happen once you make this tournament.
The first obstacle in the way to New Orleans is a remarkable Indianapolis Colts team that has actually won one more game this season (11) than the Ravens. Led by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and inspired by head coach Chuck Pagano, the former Ravens defensive coordinator who left his team during the season to get treatment for leukemia, the Colts improbably made the playoffs after being the NFL’s worst team in 2011.
The Colts have won nine of their past 11 games, with many of those victories coming via clutch comebacks, but they struggle to run the ball and their defense is vulnerable against both the run and the pass. Given how the offense has performed at home, Joe Flacco and the Ravens should be able to pull away from the young Colts, especially with all those lubed-up fans at M&T; Bank Stadium on their side. I picked the Ravens to win in a shootout, and I also humbly submit to you the following four predictions. We’ll see if any come true.
1. RAY LEWIS WILL MAKE AT LEAST SEVEN TACKLES
Unless he pulls a Favre, Sunday will be the last time that Lewis dances his way out of the tunnel at M&T; Bank Stadium. (I officially nominate Joe Flacco to assume those responsibilities next season.) Lewis announced Wednesday that he would retire after the season, and while the timing was a little surprising, the fact that he is walking away is not. Lewis is 37, and while he is relatively healthy heading into the rest of his life, he was no longer playing at a high level. Kudos to him for realizing that and not hanging on for too long. He will be fired up for this one -- the whole stadium will be -- and I see him playing at least half the snaps and padding his stats.
2. ED REED TAKES AN INTERCEPTION TO THE HOUSE
The Ravens haven’t been picking off passes like they were earlier in the season, but they may get opportunities to buck that trend against rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Luck has lived up to the hype this season, leading a team that won two wins last year to the playoffs. But while Luck has thrown 23 touchdown passes and rushed for five more, he has tossed 18 interceptions and had seven other would-be interceptions dropped by defenders, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Who knows what the future holds for safety Ed Reed? But in the very near future -- I mean Sunday -- I’m guessing it holds a pick-six.
3. JOE FLACCO WILL THROW THREE TOUCHDOWNS
The last time we saw Joe in a game that actually mattered, he threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns against the New York Giants and also rushed for a score. It looked like he got a little confidence back, but more important, it looked like offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell started to get his offense in a groove. I suspect the Ravens will be balanced against a Colts defense that has allowed 5.83 yards per carry since Week 12. But when it comes to getting the ball across the goal line, look for the Ravens to do it through the air. I see Flacco throwing three touchdowns, and I wouldn’t be surprised if tight end Dennis Pitta caught a couple of them.
4. JACOBY JONES LOSES A FUMBLE ON A RETURN
The last time Jacoby Jones played a playoff game at M&T; Bank Stadium, it was as a member of the Houston Texans. He muffed a punt that was recovered by the Ravens, setting up a touchdown that helped the Ravens win. The Ravens were wise to sign Jones when the Texans cut him, as he has scored three return touchdowns while also serving as a solid third receiver. Jones has not coughed the ball up this season, though there have been a few bobbled balls and anxious moments with Jones back to return punts. In a playoff game, I could see nerves getting the better of Jones when he is trying to make a big play. Will it cost the Ravens this time?