INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts go on the road one final time on Saturday, when they travel to take on the playoff-hungry Baltimore Ravens.
The Colts (3-11) are coming off a frustrating 25-13 loss to the Denver Broncos last week on Thursday Night Football. For the seventh time this season, Indianapolis saw a halftime lead slip away, as Denver, which trailed 10-7 at halftime, went on an 18-3 run the rest of the way to fly out of Indy with the victory.
The Ravens (8-6), meanwhile, won their fourth game in five tries on Sunday with a 27-10 triumph over the Cleveland Browns. Quarterback Joe Flacco completed 24-of-42 pass attempts for 288 yards and a touchdown, while the Baltimore defense had two interceptions on the day, plays by cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Eric Weddle.
So what should fans be looking for in this Colts/Ravens Week 16 matchup on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium?Foil Flacco
The Ravens are white hot, winners of four of their last five games, and five of their last seven, and while their defense has been solid pretty much the entire season, the play of their offense the last few weeks has really kept Baltimore afloat in the postseason conversation. Since Week 8, the Ravens are third in the NFL in scoring (30.7 points per game), and perhaps it's no coincidence that quarterback Joe Flacco is leading the way. After battling through a back injury early in the season, Flacco's been able to turn it on, especially in the last three weeks, when he's thrown for 826 yards with five touchdowns to just one interception. History shows that when Flacco's going, the Ravens are going, and the Colts are well aware of the challenges that come with stopping No. 5. "There are some things that Joe Flacco can do with the ball in his hands that a lot of quarterbacks in our league can't," said Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino, a former defensive coach with the Ravens. "I think that the challenge that Joe presents is when the offense is working, when it's humming and they mix the run game and the play-action pass game and the deep shots and some of the things that they do with Joe in the red area. That's when he becomes really difficult to defend is when he's got a lot of things that he can do in the course of the game."Ward Off Weddle
To no one's surprise, the Ravens' defense is solid once again in 2017, and it's led up front by the likes of Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley, each of whom were selected this week to the Pro Bowl. But another Baltimore Pro Bowl selection this season is perhaps the leader of the whole bunch, and that's safety Eric Weddle. The Ravens are the league's best when it comes to takeaways, and Weddle is a huge reason why, as he has six interceptions this season, which ranks second in the NFL. He also has 60 tackles and two forced fumbles. Since joining the Ravens last season after an impressive run with the San Diego Chargers, Weddle's 10 interceptions are the most among all NFL safeties. In short: Jacoby Brissett & Co. can't turn the ball over Saturday and expect to win. "I had some time that I was able to spend with him out in San Diego, so I know him," Colts offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said of Weddle. "They do a great job covering, stopping the run, doing all the things that the great defenses do. It'll be a heck of a test for us and I'm anxious to see our group respond, and I know they will."Well Isn't That Special
The Ravens have enjoyed the success of perhaps the best kicker/punter duo in the league this season in Justin Tucker and Sam Koch. Tucker has hit 29-of-32 of his field goal attempts this season; of his three misses, one was from 62 yards, another was from 58 and a third was a blocked 46-yard attempt. Tucker, who has five successful attempts from 50-plus yards, was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November, and hasn't missed a kick since October, a streak of 14 straight. Koch, meanwhile, has been one of the best in the league at controlling the field position game, as his 37 punts downed inside the 20-yard line are the best in the NFL. In the Ravens' 27-10 win against the Cleveland Browns last week, he had three punts downed inside the five-yard line — yes; three. If that wasn't enough, the Colts need to always be alert when Koch is on the field, as he has thrown for two first downs on fake punt plays this season. The Indy special teams units also have their strengths, as well, which should make those matchups even more critical on Saturday. "It's something that we value greatly here," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "We just feel like we have a big challenge in front of us this week. The Colts have done a great job with their special teams. They've made it a big emphasis point; you can see that. They're very highly ranked in many categories. Their kickoff coverage team is No. 1 in the league, so we feel like we have our hands full and it's going to be a real pivotal part of this game."Quest For 1,000
If Frank Gore is going to reach his goal of 1,000 rushing yards by the end of the season, then it's first going to take a massive effort on Saturday against a solid Ravens defense. But while Baltimore has been good against the pass and creating turnovers, its about middle of the pack when it comes to stopping the run; its 110.1 rushing yards allowed per game rank 14th in the league. Gore currently sits at 793 rushing yards on the year, and will need to average 103.5 yards over his last two games to get to 1,000 for the 10th time in his career. Head coach Chuck Pagano also said Thursday that he hasn't given any thought to favoring rookie running back Marlon Mack over Gore for these last two games just for evaluation's sake heading into the offseason, so it appears Gore's going to get every chance there is to get to 1,000, which would be an accomplishment for the entire offense in what has been a disappointing overall year. "We're playing to win, Pagano said. "Frank's the bell cow right now. Until the wheels totally come off, which they're not going to, we're going to keep the rotation as is."
Doyle & Co.
The tight end position will also be one to watch Saturday for the Colts. While the ever-solid Jack Doyle will be leading the group once again, the rest of the position could have a different look and feel than it has had all season. No. 2 tight end Brandon Williams will not play after suffering that scary-looking concussion last week against the Denver Broncos, while Jason Vander Laan will also miss Saturday's game with a concussion that he suffered during Thursday's practice. So that leaves the rest of the tight end position up to undrafted rookie Darrell Daniels, who has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury but practiced fully this week, and the athletic Ross Travis, who, at 6 foot 7 and 235 pounds provides the Colts' offense with a potential mismatch problem. Travis, a college basketball player at Penn State, had two receptions for 33 yards last week against Denver, is "an interesting guy moving forward," Pagano said. "Big, long, athletic guy," Pagano coninued. "He's everything what Chris (Ballard) said before he brought him in here that he would be. He's one of those mismatch guys that you can move around, get him out in space and he's long and athletic. Got a huge catch radius. He can run; he's deceptively fast. He understands coverage, can find a way to get open." Doyle, meanwhile, continues to put in one of the best seasons by a tight end in Colts history, as he remains six receptions away from tying Dallas Clark (77) for the second-most receptions by a tight end in Colts franchise history.
The underlying theme the entire afternoon on Saturday will be the magnitude of the game for the Ravens and their playoff hopes. Baltimore comes into the game at 8-6, and while it can't clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Colts, it can certainly put itself in much better position with a victory. The Ravens can go 2-0 over their last two games and automatically claim a spot in the postseason; in fact, that will make them the No. 5 seed in the AFC. Now, Baltimore can still make the playoffs if they lose to the Colts, but they'd need to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17 to have a shot at a likely six-seed (or vice-versa, beat the Colts and lose to the Bengals), and even in this scenario they'd need help from other teams. So while Indy's playing for pride right now, it can certainly make some noise by leaving Baltimore with a win on Saturday. "It's going to be a huge challenge," Pagano said. "I'd love to be able to find a way to get a win – not so much to knock somebody out and be a spoiler – just to see the fruits of your labor come to fruition. The reason we sacrifice and do what we do is for those five minutes. It's those five minutes in the locker room when you come off the field victorious and you have that moment to share."
Here are a few milestones to keep an eye on Saturday, courtesy of Colts PR:
• Quarterback Jacoby Brissett needs one rushing touchdown to tie Andrew Luck (five in 2012) for the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a single season in franchise history; with one touchdown pass of 60-plus yards, he will tie John Unitas (five in 1960) for the most in a single season in franchise history.
• Tight end Jack Doyle needs six receptions to tie Dallas Clark (77) for the second-most receptions by a tight end in a single season in Colts history.
• Running back Frank Gore, with one 100-yard rushing performance, would pass O.J. Simpson (42) for the 16th most in NFL history; he also needs one rushing touchdown to tie Ricky Watters (78) for 21st on the NFL's all-time list.
• Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton needs six receptions to pass Dallas Clark (427) for the fourth most in franchise history; he also needs one receiving touchdown to tie Marcus Pollard (35) for the ninth most in Colts history.
• Kicker Adam Vinatieri, with one field goal from 30-39 yards, would tie Jason Hanson (166) for the third-most made field goals from that distance in NFL history; with one field goal from 50-plus yards he would tie Jason Elam (39) for the seventh-most made field goals from that distance in league history; he also needs nine points to reach 100 for the season and extend his NFL record to 20 such seasons.