INDIANAPOLIS – Sunday's meeting with the Ravens will be the 12th renewal of a series that dates back to 1996.
Indianapolis has ventured into Baltimore six previous times and emerged victorious on four occasions. All that is past history and Indianapolis will meet a tough foe in a difficult venue on Sunday.
This will be a second straight road game against an elite foe. Indianapolis fell last week at New England, 31-24. New England is a playoff regular in this league. Baltimore is, too, and it boasts one of the stoutest defensive units in the NFL.
Baltimore is 9-3 and is tied with Pittsburgh for first-place in the AFC North. The Ravens are 4-0 in the division, including a sweep of the Steelers. Since 2008, the Ravens are 24-9 in the combined months of November, December and January. They are 26-4 in M&T Bank Stadium since 2008 and have won 16 of their past 17 home outings.
Their defensive rankings are typically among the leaders. The Ravens rank third in overall defense (287.3), second in rushing defense (88.8), fifth in pass defense (198.6), third in points allowed (16.0) and second in third-down percentage (29.9).
"Baltimore is extremely good. They're in the top of every category for a reason," said quarterback Dan Orlovsky. "They probably have four Hall-of-Famers on the defense. They do a lot of good things to try to confuse you and get you to make bad plays. They're as good as you're going to see in this league. You can't say enough good things about them."
The services of linebacker Ray Lewis could be determined later in the week. Lewis, the only NFL player with 40 sacks and 30 interceptions for a career, is but one piece of the defensive puzzle for Baltimore. Two-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata is an athletic presence at tackle. He has helped the club rank no lower than fifth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game for the past six seasons. Four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs has 78.5 career sacks, 10 in 2011, and 25 career forced fumbles. Seven-time Pro Bowler safety Ed Reed is second in NFL history with 57 career interceptions, while his 25.7 return average is the best in league history for players with at least 30 interceptions.
The headliners lead a stingy unit, and Head Coach Jim Caldwell notes the challenge ahead.
"They are great performers. That's the thing that you see time and time again," said Caldwell. "These guys are active, and they're very capable in all areas. They're capable pass rushers. (Terrell) Suggs is probably having a banner year getting after the passer, and they have a number of other guys that certainly do a great job of collapsing the pocket. They do a great job in terms of defending the run, whether Ray Lewis is in there or not, whomever is there. When he's there, obviously, he's a great player. They still have guys that are able to fill in, and they're still performing well. On the perimeter you don't find very many guys better than Ed Reed. He can cover a lot of ground. He's tenacious, and he's a ball-hawk. Lardarius Webb is doing it on the outside as well. (Cary) Williams is doing well, and their first-round draft pick (Jimmy Smith), who just got a pick last week, is playing well also. (Bernard) Pollard is a very physical guy, a big guy, long and a very, very fine tackler.
"They give you all kinds of problems, and they don't just do it one way. They do a great job of stopping the run, but they can also affect your (passing game). You'll find some teams that are maybe good run-stoppers but can't defend the pass or vice versa. These guys can do both, and do both extremely well."
Orlovsky will be starting his ninth career game on Sunday. He will keep an eye peeled for many players, Ngata included.
"He's really good," said Orlovsky. "Sometimes when you get really good edge pass rushers, you're able to at least get up in a pocket that's somewhat soft and kind of run them by. (That's) not often the case with these guys. They have the really good edge rushers on each side, then they have him up the middle. He can really disrupt passing lanes. He can disrupt the running game. He's as good as there is in the league. He's probably as good as there has been for a while. He's not just big, he's really athletic. He's kind of like their defense, you can't say enough good things about him. He's an extreme challenge."
Caldwell concurs with Orlovsky that Ngata is a defensive force and that he is one talent that makes the overall unit elite.
"He sets a great tone for them because he's not only a big man, but he's a big man that can run," said Caldwell. "Oftentimes you find guys that maybe they can take care of their gap, but this guy can run from sideline-to-sideline. He is very, very difficult to handle. They're strong down the middle. A lot of teams, when they're starting to build and construct their defense, they talk about, 'Hey, I want to be strong in the middle, have some good pass-rushers on the outside,' which they do. They're strong down the middle – defensive line, interior, middle linebacker and safety. They are very, very strong down the middle of their defense."
Baltimore has 23 takeaways in 2011, a total that ties for fourth-most in the league. Their plus-four ratio is among the leaders. Indianapolis had two turnovers last week at New England and tight end Jacob Tamme stressed the weekly importance of avoiding miscues that cost the offense possession.
"It's important like always," said Tamme. "The ball is always a premium and turnovers have hurt us this year. We just haven't gotten quite as many as we had in the past. We've had some turnovers at tough times. It's a big part of the game league-wide. You look at the turnovers as a big deal. We definitely work hard on it all week. Occasionally, stuff is going to happen. We just have to find a way to make plays, keep drives going and punch it in."
Indianapolis has competed well in Baltimore over the years, winning in its last four tries in the hostile venue. A tough defensive challenge lies ahead, but meeting the challenge is a weekly thing Tamme sees across the league, and he likes doing so.
"You pretty much have to 'man up' every Sunday in the NFL," said Tamme. "This team, they do have a lot of guys who have great reputations because they've been great players. They play really solid football. To some extent you have to be ready for some of the bravado and some of the trash talking, but there's some of that every Sunday. This team does have a little bit of an attitude on (defense) and they back it up because they're good players. It's a good challenge. I enjoy it. I think it's part of what makes it fun."
Indianapolis will be up for the challenge. Part of being successful on the road is maintaining mental sharpness and having a smart physical approach to play without incurring unnecessary penalties.
"That's every week, it really is," said Caldwell. "When you think about it, in this league, it's not for the faint of heart. It's a highly competitive and tough. Guys that play the game, when they walk in-between those lines, it's serious business. It's (penalty avoidance and composure) something you have to really talk about every week, because of the fact that you certainly (need to) display some poise and those kinds of things, but you better rev it up, too. It's going to be a physical game."