Will Peyton Manning and the Colts Prevail?
The Indianapolis Colts are trying to repress those old playoff memories. The starters haven’t played a full game together in over 3 weeks and might be rusty. Critics might say that it wasn’t a good idea, but if the Colts win it would be a great move.
Back in 2005, they were undefeated entering December, had a bye week in early January and a home date against the AFC’s No. 6 seed (Pittsburgh), which had lost in the AFC championship a year earlier. The Colts lost.
On Saturday night, Indy faces the same scenario against another AFC North foe, Baltimore.
“That was 2005, and that was a completely different team,” defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “It was a completely different defense. There’s not much that needs to be said other than ‘This is the playoffs.’ Either win or go home.”
It’s a simple philosophy the Colts (14-2) understand as well as any team still in the hunt.
Despite having the most successful decade in regular-season history (115 wins), an NFL record seven straight 12-win seasons and the league mark for most consecutive regular-season wins (23), Indianapolis has won just one Super Bowl title.
Critics contend they’ve struggled in the playoffs because those long, late-season breaks made them rusty.
This time, they’re at least healthy. Not one player missed practice this week, a first this season.
But the lesson is clear: Regular-season success, seeding and oddsmakers mean nothing in the postseason. Being sharp does.
“Don’t go out there and look like you haven’t played a game in six months,” receiver Reggie Wayne said when asked what the Colts learned from their early exits. “As long as you can just go out there and play football and play all four quarters, somewhere in there you’ll have the opportunity to win the game.”
A victory clearly would help the Colts change perceptions after two straight playoff losses, both to San Diego. Indy hasn’t won in the postseason since beating Chicago in the Super Bowl after the 2006 season.
Baltimore (10-7), meanwhile, understands what it takes to be win playoff games on the road—a suffocating defense and a proficient running game.
That was the game plan Baltimore used to win its Super Bowl title following the 2000 season as a wild-card team. They won their first-round game again last Sunday, handing New England its only home playoff loss since 1978 though quarterback Joe Flacco threw only 10 passes and finished with just 34 yards. It didn’t matter on a day when the Ravens defense intercepted Tom Brady three times and its offense ran for 234 yards, including Ray Rice’s 83-yard burst for a score to open the game.
Not only was it the Ravens first win over New England, but it also gave Baltimore a sixth road playoff win this decade, matching the record set by the 1970s Dallas Cowboys—and a chance to break it Saturday in Indy.
“Playing away is kind of an advantage because we always look at it as there’s no pressure on us,” former Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis said. “The bottom line is, no matter where we go play at, no matter who we’re playing, going to play in somebody else’s home, there is no pressure. Just go let your hair back and just go play football.”
Facing Indianapolis has always been a little different, though.
In Baltimore, merely saying the word Colts is considered heresy even now, more than a quarter-century after the team’s midnight move to Indy. The public address announcer and scoreboard still do not use the team’s nickname.
But it’s the results on the field that have caused Baltimore fans the most consternation.
Franchise records set by the old Colts—John Unitas, Raymond Berry and John Mackey—have repeatedly fallen to the new ones—Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Dallas Clark—recharging the old arguments that those franchise records should have stayed in Baltimore. The Colts also will be using kicker Matt Stover, the Ravens’ career scoring leader, Saturday night.
Worse yet, under Manning, the NFL’s first four-time MVP, the Colts have seven straight wins in this series including 17-15 in November and 15-6 in their only other playoff meeting Jan. 13, 2007, a game that featured seven field goals and no touchdowns.
The confident Ravens aren’t worried about the past.
“We’re a totally different team than we were eight weeks ago,” Lewis said. “We’re definitely a totally different team than we were last year. So, whatever years we didn’t beat them, that’s way behind us.”
Indy’s challenge is to stop the run and win through the air—like they needed to do against the Steelers in 2005. Baltimore is 2-7 this season when opponents throw for 200 yards or more (8-0 when they don’t), meaning if the Colts want to change their postseason fortunes, they’ll have to get their passing attack in sync from the start—no rust allowed.
“I think the key for us to playing well on Saturday is having a good week of practice this week,” Manning said Tuesday. “I feel we really need to put it all together this week in practice and take that to the field on Saturday. To me, that will be the key.”
To get them there, first-year coach Jim Caldwell has been increasing the intensity at practice after playing his starters only into the second half against the New York Jets and until they scored a touchdown at Buffalo in the final two regular-season games—both loses.
The Colts insist that will be enough to erase their 0-3 record after first-round byes.
“It’s like when you were in college and you were studying for that final exam, this is the testing time at the end of the year,” Freeney said. “You have to be excited for that, especially since we’ve prepared the way we know we’ve prepared. We have that bitter taste from last year and we finally have an opportunity to get back to where we want to get to.”