Colts ride Peyton's arm, Ravens' miscues to berth in AFC title game
The Colts barely outperformed the Ravens in total yardage (275-270)
Baltimore, in reality, collapsed under the weight of its many blunders
The typically pass-happy Colts can grind out a win like few others
Here's what we learned from the Colts' 20-3 victory over the Ravens on Saturday in Indianapolis:
1. Peyton Manning did not need to win this game to certify his greatness, but it was an important milestone for him and the organization. The Colts were 0-4 coming off playoff byes (0-3 with Manning), a point not lost upon the team going into its divisional playoff game against Baltimore. "A lot of the guys who have been here for awhile, we feel like we left a lot of chances [to win Super Bowls] and didn't take advantage," said defensive end Raheem Brock. "We're not trying to miss this one. Us being healthy and fresh going into the first game, that's all we wanted." Said Manning: "I don't think you're going to find many teams that are in the playoffs that are content to just to make it to the first round or second round or third round."
While the Colts organization took heat locally and nationally for benching their starters in Weeks 16 and 17 instead of chasing a perfect record, the Colts looked fresh in defeating the Ravens for the eighth straight time and earning the right to host the AFC championship against either the Chargers or Jets. San Diego has eliminated Indianapolis from back-to-back postseasons -- one more wrong Manning and the Colts may get to address next weekend.
2. The Colts, long appreciated for their quick-strike offense, can grind and grunt with the best of them. Under Manning's direction, the Colts cobbled together three muscular scoring drives in the first half, drives that turned a taut first half into a sizable lead: A 10-play drive that yielded a field goal, a 14-play drive that led to a touchdown and an eight-play drive in the final minutes that gave Indianapolis a 17-3 lead going into the half. They held the ball for 18:15 in the half and continued to eat up clock in the second half. For the game, Indy held the ball for 33:58 minutes compared to Baltimore's 26:02. Even with the Colts' running game kept in check (gaining just 42 yards on 25 carries), Manning moved the chains by spreading the football to seven different receivers. Just like Tom Brady in New England, Manning can be just as effective as a running game.
3. The Ravens, who led the league in penalty yards this season, buried themselves in a sea of yellow flags, committing seven for 64 yards. Aggressive at times, undisciplined at others, the Ravens sank their chances with the kind of sloppy errors that made them a frustrating 9-7 this year. Against the Colts, Baltimore committed its first penalty before its offense even touched the ball, committing an illegal block on a kickoff return in the first quarter. Other infractions were deadlier: Defensive pass interference on Dominique Foxworth late in the second quarter, an unnecessary roughness call on Ray Lewis on the same drive. The Colts turned the penalties into a touchdown that gave Indianapolis a 17-3 lead. There were more Ravens blunders in the second half: False start calls on Todd Heap and Jared Gaither, a holding penalty on Gaither, defensive pass interference on Corey Ivy. It's tough to beat the Colts when you're handing out so many gifts.
4. The Colts defense might have lost some punch when safety Bob Sanders was lost for the season, but they continue to play smart and physical. Six days after Ray Rice rushed for 159 yards on 22 carries against New England, the Colts defense held the second-year running back to 67 yards rushing on 13 carries. In a play that epitomized the tone of the game, Rice broke free on a long run in the fourth quarter before being met with a crunching tackle from Brock. The ball popped loose, the Colts recovered, and the Ravens were stymied again. "Sometimes you win games with special teams, sometimes you win games with defense, and sometimes you win games with offense," said Dwight Freeney. "That's what the makeup of this team is."
5. The Ravens in 2010 will need to find more offensive firepower to go with Rice. Baltimore leaned so heavily on the second-year running back that practically everyone at Lucas Oil Stadium knew who was getting the ball. Rice was targeted 12 times by quarterback Joe Flacco (catching nine passes), while carrying the ball 13 times. No other Ravens skill position player touched the ball more than four times, leading to an imbalanced, predictable attack. The Colts deserve credit for harassing Flacco, who completed just 20 of 35 passes for 189 and was sacked once and intercepted twice, but the Ravens need to find more offensive weapons. Derrick Mason turns 36 on Sunday. Heap turns 30 in the offseason. Baltimore will need to add some youth to complement the speedy, powerful Rice.
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