The Indianapolis Colts travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens in an AFC Wildcard playoff game and they'll deal the last hurrah of Ray Lewis and thousands of Baltimore fans still ticked about the 1984 move.
Once the game starts at 1 p.m. Sunday in M&T Bank Stadium, all sorts of tangibles and intangibles will be in play. Five pivotal factors:
Rambling Ray Rice
So what's it going to be the for the Colts' defense? Will they slow Rice the way they slowed Chris Johnson and sometimes Arian Foster? Or, will they have another yardage-gashing day in the manner of Maurice Jones-Drew and Jamaal Charles? It's not necessarily an encouraging sign when defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and some of the players compare Rice to Jones-Drew. The good news is the fact the Colts are as healthy up front as they've been in recent weeks. Linebacker Jerrell Freeman could be a difference-maker.
The calmness of Luck
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck seemed to settle down as the season progressed, becoming more comfortable and confident playing on the road. It'd be nice if he could find a groove that puts him above 50 percent in completions. In other words, two things need to happen: 1) Throw to the receiver in the best position, 2) Be blessed with no drops this time around. The Ravens have some pass rushers, including outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who has nine sacks. The Cols offensive line has been up and down, and will need to survive without left guard Joe Reitz, who is out after a concussion. We'll assume by now that Luck has been advised to know where safety Ed Reed is at all times.
Flagging down Flacco
Dwight Freeney, who is probably in his last go-round with the Colts, had his best overall game of the season in the win over the Texans last week. That's a good sign. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco doesn't take that many risks. He has only 10 interceptions this season. But if the Colts can hurry his throws on third downs, it could be a huge advantage. Of course, that means the Colts have to keep Rice from big gains on first and second down. Freeney and Robert Mathis should be as healthy as possible. Cory Redding, who played for Baltimore last season, might have a little incentive if he's healthy, too. Flacco will know they're coming. Could be interesting.
Rookies vs. vets
This is the first playoff game for the Colts' bevy of rookies, as well as players such as Freeman. They've been in stressful situations, playoff games rise to another level. The Ravens, on the other hand, have a number of players who have been in multiple playoff games. They'll be playing at home, another plus. The good thing for the Colts is the fact some veteran leaders can calm things, including Reggie Wayne on the offense and Robert Mathis on the defense. The quicker the Colts calm down from the emotions of a playoff game, the better their chances.
ChuckStrong vs. Swan Song
The Colts still continue to ride some of the emotions of the return of Chuck Pagano as coach. It'll be heightened a bit by the fact Pagano coached at Baltimore the previous four years. So it's a homecoming of sorts for him. Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis says this is his last season – his swan song – so some people expect additional emotion on the Ravens' side. Lewis gets a team emotionally cranked every time he plays, regardless of retirement issues. Emotion subsides. The team that finds a way to force and recover turnovers will likely be the team that feels emotionally satisfied at the end.