The Indianapolis Colts have been a thorn in the side of the Baltimore Ravens over the past 10 years, but the team has shown this season that it has much less of a bite without Peyton Manning under center.
Involved in a tight race atop the AFC North, Baltimore will look to take advantage of the Colts' woes this Sunday and win a franchise-record ninth straight game at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens have won all six of their home outings in 2011 and have taken 16 of their last 17 games as the hosting club. Their success at home this year has helped them post a 9-3 record, good enough for a tie with Pittsburgh, Houston and New England for the best in the AFC entering this week's play. The Steelers will own a half-game edge on the pack heading into Sunday's games, however, after defeating Cleveland on Thursday.
A win over the Colts would also place the Ravens back into a first-place tie with the Steelers in the AFC North, but Baltimore owns the tie-breaker edge thanks to a pair of triumphs over Pittsburgh this season. Both teams are coming off Week 13 victories, with Baltimore running its current win streak to three straight with a 24-10 victory at Cleveland last Sunday.
The Ravens used their ground game to keep the Browns in check, attempting a franchise-record 55 rushes. Ray Rice got the bulk of the work and set a career high with 204 yards rushing and also scored once.
"I have to give it all to my offensive line," Rice said about his performance. "I think it was my first 200-yard game. It felt good to get it against a divisional opponent."
Baltimore's fifth victory in six games was also big from a mental standpoint, as it had lost three road games this year against teams that were under .500 at the time of the meeting. Two of those defeats followed wins over the Steelers, but the Ravens were up to the task against a struggling team last weekend.
"We know we control our own destiny," Rice said. "Regardless of who we play, we've got to take care of business."
Baltimore is aiming to reach 10-3 for just the second time in franchise history, joining the 2006 squad, and snap an eight-game slide to Indianapolis that includes the postseason. The Ravens haven't beaten the Colts since Dec. 2, 2001.
The Colts would normally be a big test for the Ravens, but they haven't given any teams much trouble in 2011. Indianapolis has yet to win in 12 games and is off to its worst start since beginning the 1986 season 0-13.
Indianapolis was a huge underdog last weekend versus New England and trailed by 28 points late in the third quarter before Dan Orlovsky helped engineer three fourth-quarter touchdown drives in his first start at quarterback since Dec. 28, 2008 with Detroit.
Orlovsky threw a pair of touchdown passes, but the Colts still fell to 0-6 on the road this season after the 31-24 loss. Orlovsky, taking over for a struggling Curtis Painter under center, will get the start again this weekend.
"He played pretty well," Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell said about Orlovsky. "Obviously, that's one thing that is quite evident and he certainly, I think, did a nice job all around -- in the running game and in the passing game and just moving the ball. He was very poised out there. You're going to see him again."
The Colts own a 7-2 advantage in their overall regular-season series with the Ravens, the most recent being a 17-15 triumph at M&T Bank Stadium in 2009. The Colts also topped the Ravens in Baltimore, the city the franchise had resided in from 1953-83 before moving to Indianapolis, in both 2005 (24-7) and 2007 (44-20) in addition to a 31-3 rout at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2008.
Indianapolis has also defeated the Ravens twice in postseason play, including a 15-6 decision at M&T Bank Stadium in a 2006 AFC Divisional Playoff en route to a Super Bowl title. The Colts also bested Baltimore by a 20-3 count in a 2009 Divisional Round game held in Indiana, with Indianapolis reaching the Super Bowl that year as well.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is winless in three lifetime matchups with the Colts, which includes the 2009 playoff loss, while Caldwell is 2-0 against Baltimore and in head-to-head encounters with Harbaugh as a head coach.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Orlovsky (475 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) is the third quarterback given the task of replacing Manning (4700 passing yards, 33 TD, 17 INT in 2010) this year. When it was learned that a neck injury would keep the Colts' franchise signal-caller on the sidelines, the club added Kerry Collins before he was lost for the season early on. Painter (1541 passing yards, 6 TD, 9 INT) then took over and was less than impressive, leading to Caldwell giving Orlovsky a shot last week. With the journeyman under center, Indianapolis' 29th-ranked offense put up 437 total yards and Colts receivers combined for a season-high 21 catches. Orlovsky himself set career highs with 30 completions and 353 passing yards, finding wide receiver Pierre Garcon (55 receptions, 6 TD) twice for touchdowns while also getting intercepted once. Garcon logged career bests with nine receptions and 150 yards, fellow wideout Austin Collie (38 receptions) added seven grabs for 70 yards and Reggie Wayne (52 receptions, 2 TD) chipped in with five receptions for 55 yards. Perhaps Orlovsky is what this talented group of receivers, which also includes tight end Jacob Tamme (16 receptions), going. Running backs Donald Brown (397 rushing yards, 4 TD) and Joseph Addai (319 rushing yards, 1 TD) nearly split 27 carries against New England and accounted for 80 of the Colts' 99 rushing yards, while Brown also scored a touchdown.
Orlovsky was sacked twice a week ago and figures to be under fire again this Sunday against the league's third-ranked defense. Baltimore is giving up just 287.3 yards per game and ranks second versus the run, while its 16.0 points allowed per game also ranks third. The Ravens allowed the Browns to post only 233 yards of offense last weekend, and all but two of Cleveland's possessions came to an end with either a punt or a turnover. The bulk of the pressure on Orlovsky should come from outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (53 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT), who had one of Baltimore's three sacks a week ago as he reached double-digits for the fourth time in his career. Suggs also ranks second in the AFC in sacks, and the Ravens as a team are first in the NFL with 41 despite linebacker Ray Lewis (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) missing the past three games with a toe injury. He may return this week, but if not expect linebackers Jameel McClain (63 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Dannell Ellerbe (14 tackles) to step up in the veteran's absence. The two had seven tackles each versus the Browns, while rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee (20 tackles, 6 sacks) logged a pair of sacks. Rookie corner Jimmy Smith (6 tackles, 2 INT) also picked off a pass and of course, the Colts must keep their eye on safety Ed Reed (40 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) as well.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
The Ravens have been using a balanced attack this season to rank sixth in the league in points per game (24.7), but went run-heavy at Cleveland last weekend. Rice (926 rushing yards, 56 receptions, 11 total TD), who also leads the team in catches, rushed the ball 29 times and ripped off a 67-yard run while averaging seven yards a carry. In an effort not to wear down their small back, the Ravens also gave Ricky Williams (338 rushing yards, 2 TD) 16 carries, and he responded with 76 yards and a touchdown as Baltimore finished the game with 290 yards on the ground, almost 200 over their season average of 114.8 per week. With all that ground work, quarterback Joe Flacco (2895 passing yards, 13 TD, 8 INT) didn't have much to do. He completed 10 of his 23 passes for 158 yards and was sacked once without an interception. Baltimore as a team has given up only three sacks in the past four games, however. Even with limited chances, wideout Anquan Boldin (50 receptions, 3 TD) made a pair of catches for 32 yards last week to reach 700 career receptions. Tight end Ed Dickson (46 receptions, 3 TD led the way against Cleveland with three receptions and 47 yards, while rookie wide receiver and deep threat Torrey Smith (32 receptions, 5 TD) made a 32-yard grab.
The Colts rank dead last in the NFL with an average of 29.8 points allowed per game, and their meeting with the Patriots did little to help that fact. Indy is also giving up 144.2 yards per game on the ground, 30th in the league. The Colts did outgain the Pats a week ago, but New England still put up 362 yards of offense, with quarterback Tom Brady throwing for 289 yards with a pair of touchdowns. The Ravens aren't likely to deploy the same strategy, but when Flacco drops back he'll be facing two of the game's best ends in Dwight Freeney (15 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (30 tackles, 5.5 sacks). Neither was much of a factor versus the Pats, but the two have combined for 77 sacks in their last 57 games. Freeney, meanwhile, remained a half-sack shy of 100 for his career and would be the 26th player to reach that mark. With the two pass rushers shut down, defensive tackle Fili Moala (15 tackles) logged his first career sack. Safety Antoine Bethea (102 tackles) led the club with nine tackles against New England, while outside linebacker Ernie Sims (31 tackles) added eight and counterpart Philip Wheeler (75 tackles, 1 sack) made seven stops. Indianapolis did lose leading tackler Pat Angerer (112 tackles, 1 sack) in the game due to a knee injury that leaves the linebacker questionable for this game, while a pair of cornerbacks in Terrence Johnson (37 tackles) and Jerraud Powers (51 tackles, 2 INT) were lost for the season due to injuries. Cornerback Jacob Lacey (42 tackles) did play for the first time since Oct. 16 and had six tackles.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Colts didn't catch a break by having to travel to Baltimore, where the Ravens have allowed the fewest points per game (13.4) and touchdowns (45) in the league since 2008. The Ravens have also forced an NFL-high 72 turnovers in that span and are second overall with an average of 272.2 yards allowed per game at home.
One thing that helped the Colts catch up to the Patriots was their ability to convert on third down. They went 10-for-15 in said scenario last weekend after entering the game having converted only 32.4 percent of their third downs. A repeat performance will help wear down a Ravens defense that got a lot of rest versus the Browns.
Baltimore, in part because of the weather, really rode its ground game last weekend, but given the Colts' injury concerns in the secondary, it could be Flacco in the spotlight for this one. Boldin will likely draw most of Indianapolis' attention, meaning Torrey Smith could have some room to make some more big plays. Also expect the tight end duo of Dickson and Dennis Pitta to be heavily involved as well as Rice out of the backfield.
With a playoff berth almost nearly assured, the Ravens still need to finish strong as they remain in the mix for the top spot in the conference. For the Colts, that means they can't bank on Baltimore looking past this game for next Sunday's road date against a desperate San Diego team. The Ravens have shown an inability to get up for games like this season, but Harbaugh's club seemed to show last week it has learned its lesson and should be focused. Expect plenty or Flacco and Rice in this rout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 27, Colts 13