Everyone's talking about the Andrew Luck factor and the Chuck Pagano variable in this one, but I think the Ravens have trumped all of that with their intelligent rationing of the physical health of their best players.
The Ravens therefore should crush the visiting Colts on Wild Card Weekend...
Realistically Andrew Luck and the Colts should be no match for what the Ravens' defense is about to bring down upon them. And the Ravens' offense will be healthier, too.
Ray Lewis (ILB) is back and will play at least a few significant snaps. Terrell Suggs (OLB) is rested and will wreak havoc in both pass rushing and coverage. Bernard Pollard (SS) will return and bring pressure from the defensive backfield. Ed Reed (FS) will be playing centerfield again. Marshal Yanda (RG) will return to anchor the offensive line and pave the road for Ray Rice in the running game. And perhaps most importantly of all, a well-rested Haloti Ngata (DT) will blow away the Colts' zone-block and screen game.
Baltimore’s defense – and the team in general – could be at its healthiest point in a long time now that it heads into the playoffs.
Head Coach John Harbaugh chose to rest a number of his starters in Sunday’s regular-season finale in Cincinnati. That strategy, plus the natural return of several players, has Baltimore amped.
“This is the first time we get a chance to get our defense back, we're excited and ready to roll,” safety Bernard Pollard said after the game.
“We look at this as a chance to show our fans, show our coaches, show the city and show the opposing team we're here to play. We got to show what we're made of.”
Pollard missed the final three weeks of the regular season with a rib injury, but said he could have played Sunday against Cincinnati.
Suggs played two games through a biceps injury, but got some extra rest by being deactivated on Sunday.
The Ravens have been patient with Lewis, who missed the final 10 games of the regular season. Lewis was eligible to return to the field two weeks ago, but Baltimore gave him extra time to strengthen his triceps.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (knee) sat out the last game and cornerback Jimmy Smith (abdomen) has been working back slowly after surgery. He didn’t play against the New York Giants, but was back in Cincinnati and made four tackles.
“Jimmy looks like he’s getting better,” Harbaugh said. “He’s played his best game obviously since he’s been hurt. That will be a big bonus for us if we can be 100 percent.”
Harbaugh said the benefit of giving players a week off varies by the player and their specific injury. But it certainly can’t hurt.
The Ravens have only had two defensive starters play every game this season – safety Ed Reed and cornerback Cary Williams. Now they should have their full arsenal against the Colts.
The defense was even playing well down the stretch despite missing players.
It stifled Eli Manning and the New York Giants with just 14 points allowed. Even the Ravens’ second teamers held the first-team Bengals offense and quarterback Andy Dalton without a touchdown until the final minute of the first half.
It’s not just the defense that is healthier. The Ravens offense was able to rest Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda for the finale, and wide receiver Anquan Boldin didn’t have to test his bruised shoulder.
Right tackle Kelechi Osemele and fullback Vonta Leach suffered leg injuries in Cincinnati, but Harbaugh said both will be fine for Sunday’s game.
“That’s our goal, to be playing our best when the best is needed,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “I think we're very ready. Another good week of practice, we had a chance to get guys healthy, we’re going to be firing on all cylinders.
“Put it all together and the sky’s the limit for this team.”