NFL Wildcard Playoffs - Jan. 5-6

Bengals vs Texans | Colts vs Ravens | Vikings vs Packers | Seahawks vs Redskins

No. 5 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at No. 4 Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

Sunday, January 6 - Noon et/9am pt on CTV

Game Preview: Lewis' last ride begins

BALTIMORE (Associated Press)-- There's no telling how effective Ray Lewis will be Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts after missing 12 weeks with a torn right triceps.

Fortunately, for the Ravens, he's already provided an emotional lift.

With his announcement that he will step into retirement after Baltimore completes its 2013 playoff run, Lewis gave the slumping Ravens a boost heading into their wild-card game.

"Just having him back on the field is an inspiration," Baltimore defensive co-ordinator Dean Pees said.

There are plenty of engaging story lines for this game, which pits Baltimore's current NFL team against the one that left the city in a caravan of moving vans during a March 1984 snowstorm. The matchup features the return of Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who served as the Ravens' defensive co-ordinator last year and is back on the sideline after being treated for leukemia.

What's more, Baltimore offensive co-ordinator Jim Caldwell was head coach at Indianapolis for three seasons, culminating his up-and-down run with last year's 2-14 debacle. There's also the Ravens' playoff experience -- this is their fifth straight trip under coach John Harbaugh -- against a young Colts team that has 28 players making their post-season debut.

But nothing is more noteworthy than the pending retirement of the 37-year-old Lewis, who has been Baltimore's starting middle linebacker for 17 years, or as long as the Ravens have been the Ravens.

On Sunday, the aged warrior will don his gear inside his home arena for perhaps one last time. Lewis will then emerge from the tunnel to perform his ceremonial dance, gyrating to the tune of Nelly's "Hot in Herre" for the fervent, appreciative crowd.

Lewis has always had an impeccable sense of timing, and his calculated announcement served as a perfect example of that trait. Baltimore (10-6) needed a boost after going 1-4 in December, and Lewis provided it Wednesday by telling his teammates "this would be my last ride."

Previous Matchups
Dec. 11, 2011 IND 10 @ BAL 24
Jan.16, 2010 BAL 3 @ IND 20
Nov. 22, 2009 IND 17 @ BAL 15

Pagano said, "Whether he announced his retirement or not, just having Ray back, having his presence on the football field, they have their leader back. That's going to give any team an extra edge or spark."

Pagano has been a similar source of inspiration for the Colts (11-5). He laid the groundwork for their comeback season during the summer, left after three games to receive treatment for leukemia and returned last week to guide Indianapolis to a 28-16 win over the Houston Texans.

Now he returns to Baltimore, with no small measure of emotion.

"It's going to be special," Pagano said. "I have great relationships with so many people in that organization. They were so good to me and my family. I wouldn't be sitting where I'm at today if John Harbaugh hadn't given me the opportunity to join him when he was first hired as a head football coach there."

The Colts have the better record and more momentum, having won five of six and nine of 11. Baltimore has playoff experience and the home-field advantage; as AFC North champions the Ravens get to play at home, where they've won 33 of 40 since the start of the 2008 season.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been to the playoffs in each of his five NFL seasons. He's won at least once in every post-season and twice has taken the Ravens to the AFC title game.

The Colts, on the other hand, will be sending top draft pick Andrew Luck up against Lewis and a defence that has a reputation for bullying rookie quarterbacks. Luck put up some impressive numbers in his first 16 NFL games, throwing for 300 yards on six occasions and running for five scores. But this will be his first foray in a win-or-go-home format.

The only way the Ravens will return home this post-season is if they win twice and the No. 5 seed Cincinnati Bengals also make it to the AFC title game. Barring that unforeseen scenario, this will be Lewis' final dance in Baltimore.

"It's going to be one hard last ride," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said, "and we need to make it one to remember."

Players To Watch
T.Y. Hilton - Wide Receiver

The third-round rookie put together a very solid first campaign in the NFL, finishing second in receiving yards among rookies with 861 yards and first in touchdowns with seven. Hilton also added a score on a punt return. The 23-year-old's big play ability could be a boon for the Colts against a recently vulnerable Ravens' defence.

Ed Reed - Safety

Indy's run game isn't exactly intimidating, so the Ravens' D may focus more on Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne and the Colts' passing game. Ed Reed will be playing in his seventh post-season; his leadership in the secondary could help take away Indy's air game and force the Colts to beat Baltimore on the ground.

The Colts win if...

Andrew Luck was as advertised in his first year in the NFL.

2012 Team Stats
Points IND 22.3
BAL 24.9
Pass Yards IND 258.0
BAL 233.7
Rush Yards IND 104.4
BAL 118.8
Points Allowed IND 24.2
BAL 21.5
Pass Yds Allowed IND 236.8
BAL 228.1
Rush Yds Allowed IND 137.5
BAL 122.8

There was no moment too big for the first-overall pick in the regular season, now we get to see how he performs in the playoffs. If Luck can handle the increased spotlight of the post-season, and there's no reason to think he can't, it will go a long way toward keeping Indy in the game and giving them a shot to win.

Indianapolis played through a very emotional season with head coach Chuck Pagano missing a large portion of it undergoing cancer treatment. Now Pagano's back, giving the Colts a sense of normalcy.

The momentum Sunday will be with the home team Ravens, especially if defensive leader Ray Lewis returns, and Indy will have to rely on their new routine to help overcome Baltimore's energy.

Indy will need their defence to have one of its better days to stop the combination of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice on Sunday. The Colts' D ranked 26th in the league, giving up an average 374 yards per game. The run D was even worse, ranking 29th at 137 yards against per game. They'll need all hands on deck to prevent Rice from taking over, and should like their chances better if Flacco is forced to do the heavy lifting for Baltimore.

The Ravens win if...

For a division champion, the Ravens struggled down the stretch of the regular season, and big part of those struggles was because of injuries on defence.

Vocal leader Ray Lewis could return from what was originally feared to be a career-ending triceps injury, and his presence alone could boost the Ravens' energy on defence; it would certainly provide a boost to the fans to see their middle linebacker return with his infamous intro.

Joe Flacco had another up-and-down season for the Ravens, but one thing is for sure, a strong running attack can only help Flacco's fortunes. Ray Rice didn't have his best year in 2012, but once again eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and scored nine TDs on the ground. If Rice can have a big game, it will alleviate a lot of pressure off Flacco, and lead to a much more effective offensive attack.

To counter Indy's playmakers in the receiving corps, the Ravens have Torrey Smith. The second-year receiver improved only slightly on his rookie numbers, but his rookie numbers were impressive and Smith still has the penchant for coming up with the big catch.

Baltimore's offence will be looking to help Flacco as much as possible, and along with Rice and the running game, Smith will be relied upon to do his part.

Team Leaders

Passing Andrew Luck 54.1% 4,374 Yds 23 TD 18 INT
Receiving Reggie Wayne 106 Rec 1,355 Yds 12.8 Avg 5 TF
Rushing Vick Ballard 211 Att 814 Yds 3.9 Avg 2 TD
Tackles Jerrell Freeman 90 Solo 55 Ast 145 Tot 2 Sacks
Sacks Robert Mathis 8 Sacks 33 Tkl 1 FF 0 FR
Interceptions Darius Butler 4 INT 101 Yds 25.3 Avg 2 TD

Passing Joe Flacco 59.7% 3,817 Yds 22 TD 10 INT
Receiving Anquan Boldin 65 Rec 921 Yds 14.2 Avg 4 TD
Rushing Ray Rice 257 Att 1,143 Yds 4.4 Avg 9 TD
Tackles Bernard Pollard 71 Solo 27 Ast 98 Tot 2 Sacks
Sacks Paul Kruger 9 Sacks 42 Tkl 1 FF 1 FR
Interceptions Cary Williams 4 INT 90 Yds 22.5 Avg 1 TD


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