NFL 1st Round: Indianapolis-Baltimore

The NFL 1st round playoff schedule on Sunday starts with the miracle story that is the Indianapolis Colts of Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck going to Baltimore to take on the Ravens, who have the added inspiration of knowing that this is Ray Lewis’ final season. It’s one team on the rise and another hoping for one last stand. TheSportsNotebook looks at all facets of the Colts-Ravens game, from how they match up, to the historical context, to the view from Las Vegas and a final prediction.

THE MATCHUP:  The Indianapolis defense has not been very good this year, doing poorly against the pass and being one of the league’s worst against the run. Baltimore’s offense has been inconsistent, to the point that coordinator Cam Cameron was fired in December, although the inconsistency was due more to some bad play-calling than anything—hence, Cameron’s firing.

Baltimore functions best when they run the ball and because Indy’s rush defense is so bad, new coordinator Jim Caldwell—ironically the former Colts’ coach who followed Tony Dungy—shouldn’t suffer from Cameron’s temptation to get overly cute with the passing game. If Baltimore commits to getting Ray Rice 25 carries, he’ll get his yards and the field should open for Joe Flacco. I find it hard to imagine the Ravens scoring any less than 28 points and possibly in the high 30s.

In the old days—like last year for instance—that would be enough to mean a lock win, but the Raven defense is on the decline. Lewis’ return from injury and retirement announcement will provide some emotional uplift, but the future Hall of Fame linebacker is no longer a big asset on the field. Terrell Suggs is similarly compromised health-wise, as is end Haloti Ngata. And this defense has never found anyone to replace corner Lardarius Webb, after he was lost for the year early on.

The opportunity exists for Indianapolis to move the ball, but they don’t have a good running game and Andrew Luck has to stay away from turnovers. Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton should be able to get open, and Luck can’t get burned by future Hall of Fame free safety Ed Reed, with his extraordinary ability to create big plays, even if he’s another veteran running on  fumes.

THE CONTEXT: Any visit of Indianapolis to Baltimore is going to engender some bad blood in the town I lived in for four years and saw firsthand the bad blood that still exists over the Colts’ abandonment of the city in 1983 and the taking of memorabilia, like Johnny Unitas’ black shoes, with them (as though the stuff means anything to Indianapolis—send it back to the Baltimore Hall of Fame). That bad blood is augmented the fact Indy won a road playoff game here in 2006 en route to a Super Bowl title, and then knocked out Baltimore back in the Midwest in 2009. For Indianapolis, this is a playoff game. For Baltimore, it’s a holy war.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: I’m stunned by how much Vegas likes Baltimore. Their a seven-point favorite, only slightly behind Green Bay-Minnesota for the biggest line of the weekend. But Joe Flacco is not Aaron Rodgers and Indianapolis didn’t have to pour its emotions on the field in Week 17 just to make the playoffs like Minnesota did. I’m deeply skeptical on the size of this line. The Over/Under is set at 47, which also seems somewhat modest, given each team’s defensive issues.

PREDICTION: I like Baltimore to win and while I don’t want to overstate the whole Ray Lewis emotional impact thing, if it even juices the Ravens up a little extra in the first quarter, that’s enough to swing a close game. The guess here is that Baltimore runs a good game plan and puts points on the board. Luck lands his fair share of blows, but Reed gets at least one interception, maybe two, and Baltimore pulls away late. I’ve got a 41-28 final that’s closer than the score makes it sound. I guess that means I’m stuck giving the seven, although I consider the Over, the single best bet with this game.