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Bradley Wells from SB Nation's blog on the Indianapolis Colts, Stampede Blue, was kind enough to answer my five questions on his take of the upcoming Wild Card playoff game with the Baltimore Ravens.
At what point this season did fans see the Colts as a solid playoff team?
Good question. I don't know if there was ever one point. I know I personally was nervous that they might just miss the post-season. I guess, for me, the one game where I started to think that, yes, this team could make the post-season was Week 9 against the Dolphins. I did radio interviews that week, and I told one station (in Louisville, KY, I think) that the winner of that game was likely to make the playoffs, and the loser wasn't. The Colts went on to win to win 6 of their next 8 while the Dolphins won just 3 of their next 8. So, I'd say the Dolphins game was when I started to feel that this was a playoff team.
What have you seen as the difference between Andrew Luck's better performance at home vs. as a visitor?
Part of it is him and part of it is the team around him. Remember, four other rookies start with Luck on offense, including both his tight ends. Young players often struggle on the road, especially quarterbacks. For Luck, he tries to do a bit too much on the road. Forcing throws. Trying to make plays. Typical stuff that guys do when they think they need to perform better to help the team win.
How would you attack the Colts defense & stop the Colts offense?
Because of poor interior line play (they are using their fourth string nose tackle and former Ravens DE and current Colts DE Cory Redding has a quad injury), this forces Indy to play their safeties in the box. Thus, the corners are on an island, one-on-one. Vontae Davis may have won Defensive Player of the Week for Week 17, but he's shown he can get burnt by big play receivers. If I'm Baltimore, I want Torrey Smith lined up against him, and I let Joe Flacco attack Indy's corners. Protection is critical. The Colts struggle to sack the QB, even with blitzing (and they blitz a ton now).
As for the offense, pressuring Luck and forcing turnovers is critical. Luck has gone three straight games without throwing a pick. He and the Colts offense are very dangerous, especially in the fourth quarter. If I'm Baltimore, it's important to jump out early and put the hammer on the Colts, because if you walk into the fourth quarter and the game is just a one-score difference, that is to the Colts' advantage. Andrew Luck is a master fourth quarter player, which is kind of nuts considering he is a rookie.
Give me one player on each side of the ball to watch?
On defense, watch Jerrell Freeman, ILB. He's been a tremendous find. He should have been elected to the Pro Bowl. Outside Jerod Mayo in New England, Freeman is the best ILB in the AFC. No offense to Ray-Ray. On offense, T.Y. Hilton has developed into an explosive receiver, especially running route from the slot. He is the Colts' big play weapon on offense.
Predict the score and why?
Colts 23, Ravens 14. Why? The key to the game will be turnovers and special teams. When the Colts have won on the road, they've limited turnovers and played great special teams. When they haven't, Luck is throwing INTs and punts are getting blocked and returned for touchdowns. Indy has found their identity, and the emotional impact of Chuck Pagano's return to the sidelines cannot be under-estimated. What is also important to note is Pagano's coaching ability. He spends a lot of time with the defense, and it will be that unit (not Luck and the offense, necessarily) that will need to step up and make plays. The defense was next-to-last in the NFL in generating turnovers (13 total), and they went 0-3 on the road in 2012 in games where their defense failed to take the ball away. I think it's unrealistic to expect Andrew Luck and an offense with five rookies starters to go turnover-free in a playoff game at Baltimore. Thus, the defense must make plays and force Joe Flacco into mistakes. I think they will.