Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 1/3/13
The NFL’s long awaited elimination tournament arrives in full force this weekend with four wild card matchups on the schedule. The Ravens welcome familiar AFC rival, the Indianapolis Colts, into M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday at 1 p.m. for their first round showdown between the conference’s fourth and fifth seeds.  Baltimore finished the regular season at 10-6, and wanders into the playoffs losers of four of their last five, after snoozing through a Bengals game last week that didn’t matter for seeding by resting most marquee players for three plus quarters.The Colts capped off an emotional 11-5 season by pounding their top rival Houston, 28-16, and welcoming head coach Chuck Pagano back to the sidelines, after he missed much of the season receiving three months of leukemia treatment.Indianapolis has re-righted their franchise from a disappointing 2-14 output in 2011 on the shoulders of star rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The Ravens battled through defensive injuries, fired their offensive coordinator after 13 games, and let a good bouncing 9-2 start spiral downward into their less than stellar finish. Here are some keys to the game.Ray’s Last WaltzBig news out of Baltimore came this week when Ray Lewis announced that he will be suiting up for the Colts game for the first time since tearing his triceps on October 14. The 13-time Pro Bowler also happened to mention that he will be retiring at the end of this year’s playoff run. Lewis is the franchise’s all-time best player, a nearly inarguable top three linebacker in NFL history, and a surefire future recipient of a Hall of Fame bust in Canton, Ohio.The timing of Lewis’ announcement, just prior to lining up for the playoffs, bodes well for Baltimore at home this week. Unless the Bengals and Ravens meet in the AFC Championship in two weeks, this will be the final home game of his career, and the last time he makes his skin-rippling pre-game entrance in front of the home crowd in his city. Besides making us remember a once popular and not particularly good Nelly song, Ray’s entrances inspire his teammates, the stadium’s 70,000 screaming fans, himself, and even opposing players, who can often be seen looking on fueled with adrenaline.  This will be a big moment in Ravens history.Chuck Knows?Colts head coach Chuck Pagano is familiar with the Ravens after serving as their secondary coach for three seasons from 2008-2010, and as their defensive coordinator during 2011. He was also instrumental in recruiting All-Pro safety Ed Reed to the University of Miami, where he coached for five years in the late 90s.Pagano, therefore, has dangerous inside information on the Ravens defense and Reed’s tendencies and thought processes, which could be useful for his rookie quarterback in trying to out-maneuver one of the best play-making safeties in league history. The key for the Ravens will be the noisy home crowd and pressuring Luck so all that knowledge becomes too much to handle.  Luck has shown impressive poise for a rookie if given time.Wayne EnterprisesAndrew Luck’s best friend this season has been yet another All-Pro and Miami alum, wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Wayne caught 106 balls for 1,355 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season.Wayne has exploded this year after many viewed his 34-year-old skill-set as declining coming into the season.  He has arguably the best feet in the NFL coming in and out of breaks on pass routes, and catches anything that is put near him. The Ravens don’t have a corner who can handle him one on one, so this will be a team effort, and pressure, once again, becomes key in stopping this threat.O' Winter RhythmHistorically for the Ravens, once the tournament begins you can toss out the records and rankings, and forget your nightmares of opposing running backs galloping through gaping holes for 100-plus yard games. Ed Reed may have looked a hundred years old trying to arm tackle Alfred Morris, but he plays at a different level once the threat of losing means there is no tomorrow. Same with 52. And 55. And 92.The most important element for Baltimore winning in the playoffs will be their offense, and finding enough rhythm to score 3-4 touchdowns per game. They showed a solid game plan in their win over the Giants two weeks ago, but that was only one game in a season characterized by inconsistency.  Joe Flacco and Jim Caldwell must come up with a way to move the chains, control the clock, not let Ray Rice gather dust, but also call plays to keep the defense guessing.A first round home game against the Indianapolis Colts is a favorable way to begin the quest, but there can be no looking ahead once the margins are narrowed, the temperatures go down, the emotional intensity rises, and the playoffs begin.      
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