Of course, the Colts are returning to Baltimore for the first postseason game of a new era that dawned with dazzling speed.
“The way everything’s transpired to this point, nothing really shocks me anymore,” said Coach Chuck Pagano. “I guess it was just meant to be that way, the way it all worked out.”
As the protagonist of this screenplay season, Pagano is once again at the center of the storylines. A week after returning to the sideline for the first time since a three-month battle with leukemia, he will return to battle the franchise that he served proudly for five seasons before joining the Colts.
He has strong relationships in Baltimore, but he also has keen insight into the team’s inner workings. He brought defensive end Cory Redding and strong safety Tom Zbikowski to the Colts from the Ravens, so there is a depth of knowledge to draw upon.
“Obviously he knows their system,” said Dwight Freeney with a smile. “I can’t sit here and tell you what he told us. He has some insight.”
When the game kicks off today at 1 p.m. in Baltimore, Pagano’s story will be just one of many woven into this unusually compelling script.
THE FALLEN COACH
No, not Pagano. This time it’s the right-hand man, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was hospitalized Sunday in Baltimore with an undisclosed illness. Long-time assistant Clyde Christensen, the quarterback coach, will call the plays.
Arians missed practice Thursday with flu-like symptoms. The timing of this development is particularly challenging for the Colts because they have relatively little time to deal with this transition.
THE SEASONED ROOKIE
Among the many other records he has compiled this season, Andrew Luck is the first quarterback drafted No. 1 to guide his team to the playoffs, although he will argue the importance of his role, preferring to defer to Reggie Wayne.
He is the 12th rookie quarterback to start in the playoffs; the previous 11 have produced mixed results, going 5-6. One was Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, the first in league history to reach the postseason in each of his first five seasons.
Though he hasn’t thrown an interception in three weeks, it would be disingenuous to suggest he enters this game on a roll, as he has completed less than half his attempts (.489) for 582 yards (194 per game) in that span.
The Baltimore environment shouldn’t be a big issue for Luck, at least not as big an issue as the Ravens’ physical but aging defense. There are holes in the secondary that can be exploited, provided the offensive line can provide him the time to work through his reads.
“This week, like any other week, it’s going to be a challenge for him from an identification standpoint,” Pagano said. “Once you get into the later downs, third downs, this defense will throw some different looks at you.”
Against this defense that relies so heavily on masking its intentions, rookie quarterbacks have lost six of their last eight games.
“Obviously, the Ravens’ defense has been great since for however long, and they still are. So, I am sure any quarterback’s record against the Ravens isn’t so hot,” Luck said. “I haven’t heard that statistic, and obviously, I would hate to say you worry about going up against a great defense like the Ravens. But you definitely have an incredibly healthy respect for what they do and how they can affect games and change the game so quickly.”
THE RAY LEWIS EFFECT
It’s obvious Lewis timed his retirement announcement specifically to form a rallying point for the Ravens, who need one. They dropped four of their last five games, yielding 111 points (27.8) on the losses.
At the very least, the Lewis effect neutralizes the battle for motivational edge, an intangible that has been particularly invaluable to the Colts throughout this season.
YOUTH vs. EXPERIENCE
While this is an almost entirely new Colts team – 40 of the 53 players on the active roster last Sunday joined this season – the Ravens are an established, experienced team that has leaned on the same core players throughout their five-season playoff run.
Indy is not devoid of veteran experience and will lean heavily on the holdovers from the Bill Polian/Peyton Manning era – Freeney, Robert Mathis, Antoine Bethea, Reggie Wayne and Adam Vinatieri in particular.
“You know, it’s one of those things that you know not a lot of people know who have played in the league can really say they’ve experienced playoff football,” Bethea said. “We always say that it goes up a notch but at the end of the day, it’s still football. Whatever we’ve done to get to this point, you just want to continue to do that and once you go out there on Sunday, it’s going to be like Week 8, Week 9.
“But the thing in the back of your head, you just know if you lose, you go home.”
Bruce Arians may well win NFL Coach of the Year honors for the job he did rallying the Colts during Pagano’s absence. He may also win a head coaching opportunity as a result, which means this could be his last game as Pagano’s right-hand man.
That would be a blow to the young Colts in general and Luck in particular, given the strength of their relationship. When asked what he would tell an NFL team interested in Arians, Luck smiled and said, “terrible, terrible things.”
The Bears already have asked permission to interview Arians, and it has been granted. The Chargers reportedly are giving him strong consideration, and have received permission to interview Tom Telesco, the right-hand man of General Manager Ryan Grigson.
“Let me just say this: we do not want to lose Bruce Arians,” Pagano said. “We know what he is and we know what he means to this organization and to this football team. … (but) if you’re interested in a guy you’re getting a guy that’s a great leader, a great football coach, a great man, and if that happened you’d be getting a great football coach.
“Again, certainly we don’t want to lose Bruce, we can’t lose Bruce. So we’ll just cross that bridge when it comes.”
The Ravens’ offensive coordinator is none other than Jim Caldwell, who was with the Colts 10 years, the previous three as head coach. That included a trip to Super Bowl XLIV.
Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron on Dec. 10 and has had just three games in the position so the Colts aren’t completely sure what impact he’ll have on the Ravens’ offensive identity.
“Over the years we’ve played them, it’s always been that dilemma,” Freeney said. “They kind of pass the ball and you hear the fans booing, ‘Why didn’t you hand it to Ray (Rice)?’ It’s always kind of been that. With Jim as the coordinator now I don’t know what direction they’re going to do now. We’ll just have to see when you line up what they’re going to do.”
INDIANAPOLIS vs. BALTIMORE
Yes, we know, AARPers in Baltimore. Indianapolis stole your team.
You stole Cleveland’s team. So shut up, already.
Can we please get over this one and move on?
AND THEN THERE’S SOME ACTUAL FOOTBALL STUFF
The biggest keys for the Colts are obvious, but challenging.
Offensively, they must continue to balance risk vs. reward in the passing game, working to avoid turnovers while creating the necessary big plays.
Defensively, they must contain a powerful running game that features not only Rice but Bernard Pierce, a 218-pound rookie who racked up 212 yards in the last two games.
On special teams, they must deal with Jacoby Jones, who has returned two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns this season.
SO WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?
One thing I’ve learned about this team is the need to suspend logic when it comes to expectations. The Colts have managed to do whatever makes for the best story, regardless of what reality suggests. And there is no better storyline than vanquishing the Ravens and moving on to an even more magical matchup – against Peyton Manning and the Broncos (assuming the Texans beat the Bengals in the other wild-card game). Of course, the Colts will win, with Luck directing yet another fourth-quarter drive, by a final score of 23-21.