INDIANAPOLIS —We've got the Baltimore Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts matching up on Saturday for their 2017 Week 16 showdown at M&T Bank Stadium.
With an inside scoop on the opposition heading into the game, we check in with John Eisenberg, a columnist for the Ravens and their website, BaltimoreRavens.com (follow John on Twitter @BmoreEisenberg):
Walker:We've got the Colts coming to Baltimore on Saturday, and the Ravens come into the matchup at 8-6, still very much in the hunt for a spot in the postseason. John, the Ravens can't clinch any sort of postseason spot with a win on Saturday, but obviously this is a huge game for them. And here come the Colts, at 3-11, just playing for pride at this point. Obviously you don't overlook any opponent in the NFL, but can you describe just how critical Saturday's game is in Baltimore after, really, such an up-and-down season up until the last month or so?
Eisenberg: **"Well, it's everything. I mean, this game is everything. Since there was so much sort-of mediocrity among the Wild Card contenders for a long time, even though the Ravens were around .500, they were never out of anything. And so they got themselves into a weird position where they had a big game against Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago, even though they lost it it didn't even matter because they are still in the position where if they won their last three games, they would clinch a spot — they don't need any help at all. And it doesn't show that right now in the standings if you look on any of the websites, because the tiebreaker is the record against common opponents, and it's a minimum of four, and the Ravens, they don't have four yet. So that's actually not in play, but it will be. So all they have to do: they beat Cleveland on Sunday, they have to beat the Colts on Saturday, and then close the season, beat Cincinnati (and) they're in the playoffs; they might have a No. 5 seed. So this game is everything to them. It's all or nothing, really."
Walker:I read yesterday about how this Baltimore offense has been able to really take off. You wrote that since Week 8, the Ravens are averaging 30.7 points per game, which is third in the NFL. Why, John? Obviously it starts at the quarterback position, so what has Joe Flacco done? And I'm guessing getting that run game going has a lot to do with it.
Eisenberg:"Well, the run game they've had pretty much all year. They were horrible running last year — 28th in the league — and it's a running franchise, historically. So they brought in (senior offensive assistant coach) Greg Roman, they said, 'We're going to be good in the run again this year if we can,' and they have been. And then the bonus was (running back) Alex Collins fell into their laps, and they just picked him up — Seattle cut him — and he's winded up being a difference maker; I think he's about 150 yards to get to 1,000, and he hasn't been the starter all year. So the running game is good, and so what that has meant is it's opened up, as the year's gone on, the play action, it's opened up the passing game. (The) passing game's been a real work in progress all year; Flacco started the year with a back injury and just wasn't very good. But the pieces have sort of come together in the last month; he looks like his old self, the receivers are getting separation, he's moving the ball around and, you know, it's just pretty good. So they've got a run-pass blend going, and at this point, it looks like the offense is pointed in the right direction."
Walker:No surprise as Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley selected to the Pro Bowl, but Eric Weddle — second straight Pro Bowl selection, fifth overall; he has six picks this year, second in the NFL. It just seems like ever since he came over from San Diego last year, he's fit in perfectly with this Ravens' style of defense. What kind of impact has he made in Baltimore?
Eisenberg:"Well, a lot of leadership. He's just really good. He sets a great tone; he's in the building every day at 5:30 (a.m.) looking at film, and he's the coach … basically the coach on the field, and he's setting everything up, and is just a real knowledgable guy back there;' a solid tackle or two, and he's been in the right place. I mean, he's just a smart player, and they've put a lot of money into the secondary in the last couple years — look at Tony Jefferson this year; the first-round draft pick is now starting, Marlon Humphrey. So the pass defense, other than that game against Pittsburgh, which was definitely a blip — not a good night that night — the pass defense has been very good. And it should be, because Weddle and that group, they've been really strong back there."
Walker:Finally, we heard Colts head coach Chuck Pagano talk on at least a couple occasions this week about the Ravens' strong special teams play. Beyond Justin Tucker being Justin Tucker at kicker, what has led to such solid special teams play for the Ravens this year?
Eisenberg:"Well, of course, Chuck was here and knows the organization intimately, and he coached alongside Jerry Rosburg, who's the special teams guy here and has been forever — (he's) the assistant head coach. And Jerry's just really good — they're good at all of it. I mean, the punter, Sam Koch, I cannot explain to you what's going on. Last week against Cleveland, he dropped three punts inside the five-yard line. I mean, it looked like golf shots, and any golfer would taken them, with the backspin, sitting straight up, and they were down. The Browns have it pretty tough, but with those kicks they were just defeated. Sam Koch is an outstanding punter. And the coverage units are strong; Tucker, as you said … the Ravens rely a lot on special teams. I mean, their offense just hasn't been good enough to really separate themselves, so they really need to play field possession and mistake-free football and that sort of thing, and the special teams just continually come through for them. It's a big part of what they do."