Saturday, January 16, 2010

2010 NFL Divisional Playoff Preview, Part 2: Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts

Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts
Favorite: Ravens (54.6%)

Yes, that's right, the Ravens are actually a slight favorite over the Colts, despite being a 6 seed to the Colts' 1 seed and playing this game in Lucas Oil Stadium. Sagarin's Predictor ratings:

Baltimore: 29.24
Indianapolis: 25.48

Even factoring in the 2.53 home field advantage, Indy is a slight underdog despite having an overall higher Sagarin rating (27.88 to Baltimore's 26.54). Simply put, the Ravens posted a 10-7 record against tougher competition. While the Colts did go 5-1 vs the league's top half compared to the Ravens' 3-7, that the Ravens had more games vs the top half and bigger wins vs tougher competition via scoring margin than the Colts did gives them a ratings edge.

A closer look could confirm this.

Team Efficiency (Using Football Outsiders' Weighted Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)... as of the end of the regular season):

Ravens: 32.5% (1st)... Offense DVOA: 16.9% (8th)... Defense: -13.6% (3rd)... Special: 2.0% (8th)
Colts: 17.1% (8th)... Offense DVOA: 19.6% (6th)... Defense: 1.8% (16th)... Special: -0.6% (20th)

The overall efficiency ratings confirm that the Colts aren't as tough as the 14-2 record indicates... though some will argue that quitting on their last two games may have dragged their ratings down, a look at their schedule shows that many of their 14 wins were too close for comfort.

Week 1: 14-12 win over Jacksonville
Week 2: 27-23 win over Miami
Week 8: 18-14 win over San Francisco
Week 9: 20-17 win over Houston
Week 10: 35-34 win over New England
Week 11: 17-15 win over this same Baltimore team
Week 12: 35-27 win over Houston
Week 15: 35-31 win over Jacksonville

And then the two capitulate losses to the Jets and lowly Buffalo. The Colts were not a dominating 14-2 team... more likely a 9-7 or 10-6 team that happened to win all their tight games before conceding their last two games. Baltimore can beat this sort of team... and almost did in Week 11.

Ravens Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.03 (B)
Drive Success Rate: .702 (C)
Turnovers per: .112 (B)

Offense Line Run Blocking: B+
Left End: C
Interior: B
Right End: A+
Pass Protection: C

This is a traditional offense that establishes the run to set up pass plays and emphasizes winning the trench battle: Only seven teams ran a higher percentage of plays between the tackles than the Ravens' 55%. Of thosse teams, only the San Diego Chargers are still alive in the playoffs.

With the strength and speed of today's NFL defenses, it's very hard to do this consistently well, but the Ravens do it being a strong offensive line, a trio of fine tailbacks and enough of a threat from the passing game to keep the opposing front seven honest.

Ravens Backfield:

QB: Joe Flacco: B (Rushing: F)
RB: Ray Rice: B+ (Receiving: B)
RB: Willis McGahee: B+ (Receiving: D)
RB: LeRon McClain: B (Receiving: C)

Baltimore rotates action between these three tailbacks, but the most productive of the bunch has been Ray Rice, who has slowly worked his way into feature back status and the NFL's upper echelon of tailbacks, similar to the career path of an undersized but persistent, durable and hard working tailback from the University of Florida named Emmitt Smith.

Joe Flacco has his hot games and cold games, but he did go 23 for 35 and 256 yards against the so-so Colts defense in Week 11, in Baltimore. He'll be on the road in hostile territory this time, sure, but he'll also be under a roof. His career 83.5 rating in road games (with 19 TDs and 13 picks) indicates he can handle himself in a big road game.

Ravens receivers:

WR: Derrick Mason: C (Running plays: A+)
WR: Mark Clayton: D-
WR: Kelley Washington: A
WR: Demetrius Williams: B+
TE: Todd Heap: A

The veteran Mason has slipped a bit physically and QB Joe Flacco's accuracy is still a work in progress, but he's still a key piece of this passing game when the Ravens do drop back to throw. The playmaker of the bunch is Kelley Washington: Whether or not the Ravens realize it enough to use him as more than a change of pace slot receiver and/or slide him ahead of overrated Mark Clayton on the depth chart remains to be seen. Demetrius Williams has also been productive over a small sample size: Whether or not he's money with more targets remains to be seen. Todd Heap is not just a possession target for Flacco but a fine, productive receiving TE of his own right.

Ravens defense (Base 3-4):

Overall: B+ (Momentum Weighted*: B)
Points per drive: 1.36 (B+)
Drive success rate: .642 (B+)
Turnovers per drive: .171 (B)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: B+
vs left end sweeps: B
Right DE: B+
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: A
vs right end sweeps: A-

Pass Defense: B
Defensive line vs rush: A+
Pass rush: D
vs #1 WR: A
vs #2 WR C+
vs Other WR: D+
vs TE: A+
vs RB: A

Whether or not they've slipped from elite status, the Ravens still sport a very good, very efficient defense against which opposing offenses can't consistently move the ball. Only the Jets, 49ers and Vikings were more effective at shutting down drives, and only the Jets and Niners allowed a lower percentage of TDs per drive. The Ravens are among the best at shutting down the opponent's #1 receiver, their backfield receivers and their tight end. Peyton Manning's best chance for a big game will be to somehow convince the defense he's looking for Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, and then smoke and mirror his way to Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. That and hope that maybe they can win the trench war with Joseph Addai-

... uh, nevermind.

Despite their aggressive defensive reputation, the Ravens actually sport a relatively poor sack total. They didn't sack Peyton Manning in Week 11 and I wouldn't be surprised if they failed to do so again. However, they did pick off Manning twice.

Ravens Special Teams:

Kicker: C- (Kickoffs: B+)
Kick returns: B+
Punting: C
Punt returns: C

The Ravens can spike their chances of building a lead on the Colts with big returns from Jalen Parmele, Ladarius Webb and Chris Carr, who fuel a kick return game averaging 26.2 yards per return. Big kickoffs from Billy Cundiff when the Ravens do score will also help. Peyton Manning's going to have a hard enough time scoring touchdowns on the Ravens defense without having to go 80 yards to do it.

Colts Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.43 (B+)
Drive Success Rate: .748 (A+)
Turnovers per: .140 (C)

Offense Line Run Blocking: D+
Left End: F
Interior: B-
Right End: C
Pass Protection: A+

The Colts could really use some production from Joseph Addai, but it's not looking likely. On the flip side, Peyton Manning has combined with his offensive line to take the fewest adjusted sacks in the NFL. One positive harbinger: On 31 pass plays, the Ravens did not sack Manning in the Colts' week 11 victory over the Ravens.

Colts Backfield:

QB: Peyton Manning: A+
RB: Joseph Addai: B- (Receiving: B)
RB: Mike Hart: D
RB: Donald Brown: D (Receiving: A)

The Colts' offense has struggled more lately because it HAS been all about Peyton Manning and the passing game. Joseph Addai is the only real rushing threat and even he's not especially great on average... just decent. The Ravens had no trouble containing the Colts running game in week 11 (76 total yards) and probably won't today.

Colts Receivers:

WR: Reggie Wayne: B
WR: Austin Collie: B
WR: Pierre Garcon: C
WR: Hank Baskett: F
TE: Dallas Clark: A
TE: Tom Santi: B
TE: Jacob Tamme: F

The Ravens can probably take away half of Peyton Manning's weapons. Peyton's ability to utilize his secondary receivers (Collie, Garcon, Tom Santi in 2-TE sets) will be the key to the Colts' chances of taking down the Ravens. They can probably win this game with three touchdown drives: Do they have three touchdown drives in them?

Colts defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: C+)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: C
vs left end sweeps: C
Right DE: D-
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: D
vs right end sweeps: F

They contained the Ravens running game in Week 11 (98 ground out yards), but does this porous front seven repeat the feat this weekend? If they don't, the Colts are rusty on offense from their three week vacation and the Ravens D holds serve vs Peyton Manning, this could get ugly.

Pass Defense: C
Defensive line vs rush: D-
Pass rush: C
vs #1 WR: C
vs #2 WR: D+
vs Other WR: C
vs TE: C
vs RB: C-

The Ravens don't have a prolific passing game, but they managed to move the ball on this pedestrian Colts pass defense, and inside the Oil Warehouse they could repeat the feat. The Colts are poor enough at covering the #2 wideout that Mark Clayton could have a good game despite himself. If the Ravens plug in someone else alongside Derrick Mason, however, that player's going to have a massive game.

Colts Special Teams:

Kicker: C (Kickoffs: C)
Kick returns: C
Punting: C+
Punt returns: D+

Don't expect any miracles from this okay-ish unit.


So who has the edge?

Even the money's not following the supposedly favored Colts. Vegas Insider reports 64% of moneyline bettors have chosen the Ravens to win straight up (no pointspread, and the Ravens are a 6.5 point underdog), and that when betting opened the vast majority of bettors, over 95%, were picking the Ravens.

Part of that was motivated by the Colts' laydown and their history of failure when they clinch home field and pack it in the last couple weeks. Part of that was from the Ravens playing the Colts tough in Week 11 and knowing that hard-nosed defense can shorten the game and cut the outcome down to a handful of scores. And part of that is from the realization that the Colts' smoke and mirrored their way to 14 wins by managing to win a bunch of close games, and the laydown by their backups in Weeks 16 and 17 show that they don't have a lot of depth.

A close look at the stats support those shallow biases. The Ravens have the all-around defensive ability to contain a limited Colts offense that has to lean a little too heavily on the pass game, a contrast to prior great Colts teams that had a better run-pass balance. The Colts' historically so-so defense remains so this season, and the Ravens have the tools to move the ball on this so-so bunch, even if they struggled to run the ball in week 11. They also have a strong kick return game that can help them win the field position battle.

Fans are sniffing an upset, and their noses aren't fooling them.

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