The Indianapolis Colts have been in this situation several times already this year, facing an All-Pro caliber running back playing alongside an erratic quarterback. Today's wild card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens will be no different.
Today's challenge for the Colts will be Ray Rice, the Ravens' diminutive but powerful all-everything back. Rice can beat you between the tackles or to the edge. He can hammer the line and wear down opponents or catch the ball out of the backfield and turn a screen pass into a big gainer. For the Colts to stay alive and move on to Denver and a showdown next weekend with Peyton Manning, stopping Rice must be their first priority.
They've done it before. The Colts held Adrian Peterson, who surpassed 2000 yards this season, to his lowest output in week two. Twice they contained Tennessee's Chris Johnson and put the ball into the hands of Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker. In last week's finale against Houston, the Colts contained Arian Foster.
But they've been gashed as well. Jacksonville's win at Lucas Oil Stadium was largely due to Maurice Jones-Drew's big play ability and Jamaal Charles ran roughshod over the Colts' defense in Kansas City, nearly causing a Kansas City upset.
Joe Flacco dearly wants to be considered an "elite" NFL quarterback, yet when the game has been put in his hands, he hasn't delivered like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Tom Brady. He hasn't even delivered like Andrew Luck.
The Ravens have enough weapons outside of Rice to give the Colts problems. WR Torrey Smith can fly and will be a handful for Vontae Davis and/or Cassius Vaughn in single coverage. Anquan Boldin is a proven veteran who, although not quite the deep threat he once was, is still a very dependable route runner and underneath receiver. Add in tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta and the Colts will face a stern challenge in handling Flacco's weapons.
But Rice is the key. If Rice is rolling, he puts Flacco in favorable down and distance situations and allows for the play action pass which creates all sorts of mismatches down the field. The Colts must keep the Ravens behind the chains and force Flacco to make big plays on third down.
Going into M&T Bank Stadium and knocking off a veteran Ravens team playing in Ray Lewis' final home game is a tough task. But if we've learned one thing about these Colts this season it's this: Never, ever, under any circumstances, underestimate them.
No set of coaches understands the Ravens better than Chuck Pagano, who served as John Harbaugh's defensive coordinator in Baltimore, and Bruce Arians, who locked up with the Ravens twice a year while he was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. These two know the Ravens' personnel and packages almost as well as they do their own.
Then there's the Ravens' own struggles. Since looking like they were going to walk into a first round bye, they've hit a skid, losing four of their last five. Their only win came against the New York Giants when they were able to rush for over 200 yards. If the Colts can contain the run game and make Flacco the focal point of the offense, I like their chances.
I see this game coming down to special teams. Pat McAfee keeps field position in the Colts' favor and on the strength of three Adam Vinatieri field goals, the Colts emerge from Baltimore victorious, ready to head to Denver for an apocalyptic matchup with Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Final score: Colts 23, Ravens 17
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