Talk about emotion.
When the Indianapolis Colts visit the Baltimore Ravens on Wild Card Weekend, so much for so many will be on the line.
Long time Baltimore football fans have never forgiven the Irsay family or gotten over the image of Mayflower Transit trucks bolting from the Colts' Maryland training facility in the early morning hours of March 29, 1984 under the threat of eminent domain from the Charm City. And any time those fans see that horseshoe on the side of a helmet, memories of Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry come flooding back.
On Indianapolis' side, the emotion is palpable and ongoing after head coach Chuck Pagano, a former Ravens secondary coach and defensive coordinator from 2008-11, made his first sideline appearance since Week 3 against Houston last Sunday as the follow-up to a successful battle with leukemia -- one which comes as part of the franchise's own improbable encore to a 2-14 finish in a lost season under Jim Caldwell, currently Baltimore's offensive coordinator, a year ago.
Pagano began September as Caldwell's successor in Indy but was felled just three weeks into the month when his diagnosis was formally announced and day- to-day leadership of the team was assumed by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
Arians did a spectacular job in Pagano's stead, going 9-3 in 12 games after the 1-2 start and Indianapolis clinched a berth in the AFC tournament in Week 16 with a 20-13 defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Colts had officially fallen out of the South Division race a week prior, when the Texans beat them, 28-16, in Houston but Pagano's return helped Indy spilt the season series and play spoiler to the Texans' hope of a first round bye.
"You have one thing that you find out is that you're a lot stronger than you think you are," Pagano said of beating cancer. "Have a positive attitude, wake up every day, have faith and have a belief that you're going to beat it and you're going to win."
Rookie star Andrew Luck threw two touchdown passes in Week 17 as the Colts moved to 11-0 all-time against Houston at home and became just the second team in NFL history to win 11 or more games following a season with two or fewer victories.
"They refused, they refused to let anyone write their story of what they could or do not do," Pagano said of his team.
Luck finished with 191 yards through the air on 14-of-28 passing and surpassed Peyton Manning's single-season rookie record for completions with 339.
"To get a win, I think means the world to him (Pagano)," Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, said.
To add a little more heat to the bubbling cauldron that is Colts-Ravens, long- time Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis announced Wednesday that he is retiring at the conclusion of the Ravens' postseason run.
The superstar told his teammates on Wednesday that "this will be my last ride."
"I talked to my team and I talked to them about life in general," Lewis said when meeting the media on Wednesday. "Everything that starts has an end. It's just life. I'm just going in another phase of life. I think my fans, I think my city, they deserve it. They deserve that whenever this road stops, for me not just to walk away and be like, 'I'm done.' I think we all get to enjoy what Sunday will feel like knowing that this will be the last time 52 plays in a uniform in Ravens' stadium."
Baltimore placed the 37-year-old Lewis on the injured reserve-designated to return list after he tore his right triceps on Oct. 14. Lewis returned to practice on Dec. 5 and the club moved him to the active roster later in the month, but held him out of the regular-season finale at Cincinnati.
A 17-year veteran, Lewis is bound for Canton after being the heart and soul of the franchise, as well as a leader of one of most consistent and ferocious defensive units of this generation. The Miami-Florida product finishes as a seven-time All-Pro, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year after compiling 41 1/2 sacks and 31 interceptions and being named to 13 Pro Bowls.
As for this week Lewis said "there is no reason for me not to be playing."
Baltimore enters the postseason as the AFC North champions but started the 2012 campaign at 9-2 before faltering down the stretch and finishing by losing four of five.
"This team's getting healthy and we're going to hit our stride going forward in the playoffs," said Ravens Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice.
With his division already locked up Ravens coach John Harbaugh rested most of his starters in a 23-17 loss to playoff-bound Cincinnati in Week 17.
Joe Flacco -- the only starting quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in each of his first five seasons -- attempted only eight passes before leaving, while Rice rushed just three times.
Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin sat out with a bruised shoulder and defensive end Terrell Suggs, the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was sidelined with a biceps problem. Both are expected to play Sunday along with Lewis and Bernard Pollard, who missed the final three weeks with a rib injury.
"This is the first time we get a chance to get our defense back," Pollard said. "We're excited and ready to roll."
During the Manning era in Indianapolis, the Colts always had Baltimore's number, winning eight straight, including two playoff victories until the Ravens halted the run with a 24-10 win on Dec. 11, 2011 when Manning was sidelined. Overall, the Colts have a 7-3 advantage over the Ravens in regular season games along with the 2-0 mark in the postseason.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Lewis, who missed 10 games, belongs on the Mount Rushmore of linebackers and although he's not the player he once was, the leadership he brings to the field has been sorely lacking from a Ravens' defense, which finished 17th in total defense at 350.9 yards allowed per game, the franchise's worst showing on that side of the ball since 2002.
Luck, meanwhile, will be the first quarterback other than Manning to start a postseason game for Indianapolis in 16 years. Interestingly the last signal- caller to start a playoff game for the Colts before Manning took over was Jim Harbaugh -- Luck's college coach at Stanford, the current 49ers coach and brother of John Harbaugh. It wasn't pretty either as Indy was routed 42-14 by Pittsburgh in the wild card round back in 1996.
The enormity of the stage always has to be a concern for any rookie, making his first postseason start. Luck's overall numbers this season may be pedestrian, ranking 26th in passer rating at 76.5, but he's the main reason the Colts jumped from two wins all the way to 11.
Understand Manning was 3-13 during his first season in Indianapolis. Luck nearly quadrupled that success and it's not like he took over a team loaded with talent. At the end of the day, however, throw out all the numbers -- forget the passing yards and touchdowns. Toss out passer rating and ESPN's contrived total quarterback rating. Wins are how starting quarterbacks are ultimately judged and always will be. Luck is already lapping a guy who some have labeled as the best regular season signal-caller of all-time.
You can temper all of that by understanding this is a pass-happy era and some of the all-time greats weren't operating under these rules. That said, Luck has more than lived up to his billing as the best pure quarterback prospect since Manning or perhaps John Elway.
His 11-5 record as a starter is by far the best a No. 1 overall pick has ever put together and his seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime are the most in a single season by any quarterback since 1970.
"The kid, he continues to amaze," said Colts star receiver Reggie Wayne, who reached 100 receptions this season for the fourth time in his career. "Hopefully I can help add on to his legacy that he's about to build."
All that said the Ravens defense could give Luck trouble even though the foundation is seemingly crumbling. With Lewis, Suggs and Pollard returning from injury to join Ed Reed, the one thing Baltimore brings to the dance is experience and the understanding of what it takes to win in January.
You can also bet the veterans will try to bait the freshman into some things and like any rookie, Luck is prone to turning it over as his 18 interceptions will attest.
"They're a great team," Luck said. "Obviously, coach Pagano knows more about them than I do so I'll lean on him, but obviously (it's) a historic defense."
Football is an emotional game in general but Pagano's return from leukemia and sojourn back to Baltimore, along with Lewis' pending retirement and the history between these two cities takes this encounter to another level.
Harbaugh, the only coach in NFL history with a postseason win in each of his first four seasons, understands that and is doing everything possible to keep his team focused.
"It will be great," Harbaugh said when asked about his former defensive coordinator returning. "It's something that, in this profession, is a big deal. Relationships are important. But by the same token, it's a game and they're the opponent."
Lewis has always been a master of motivation and his well-timed retirement announcement along with the Ravens' experience and their significant home- field advantage -- Flacco is 34-7 in Baltimore as a starting quarterback -- should be enough in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 27, Colts 17