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AFC Divisional Preview

In NFL on January 15, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Baltimore Ravens@Indianapolis Colts

The Baltimore Ravens upset the odds, history and a good portion of the country when they marched into Foxboro last week and destroyed Tom Brady’s Patriots, and they will have to do the same again this week if they want to advance to the AFC Championship game.

The Ravens are one of those teams that you can’t help but admire. They are one of the most physical teams in the NFL, and if there’s any group of players that will relish the challenge of overthrowing the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts in front of their home crowd, it’s Ray Lewis and co.

But while the Patriots were a team with obvious flaws to be exploited, this Colts side have looked almost untouchable for a good portion of the year. They were 14-0 and on track for a perfect season before Jim Caldwell decided to rest his starters. Sure, they had some close games, but with Peyton Manning looking more intimidating than Clint Eastwood with an Uzi, you always feel that they’re just a couple of snaps away from a match-winning play.

Peyton Manning runs an offense that's limited, but still almost impossible to stop

Manning, like Brady, is a sure-fire Hall of Fame player. He needs another Superbowl ring to cement his legacy though, and silence the doubters. This pressure has clearly weighed on Archie’s boy. At times, he’s looked haunted by the ghosts of playoffs past, and he’ll need to play with the bravery and freedom he’s capable of if he’s to break this B-more D.

Manning is a special case, because even if the unit in front of him are under pressure, he still has an uncanny ability to step up and make plays when he looks certain to be sacked. This must drive opposing pass-rushers insane.

Despite an undersized offensive line that only clears the way for 80 yards a game on the ground (leaving the Colts ranked dead last in rushing) opposing teams have only registered a measly 13 sacks all year. This scrambling ability will be especially useful against the Ravens 3-4 defensive scheme, and combined with the Colts’ lack of reliance on a running game, the influence of impact players like Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata could be greatly reduced.

The key match-up therefore, could well be P-Man versus Ed Reed.

Hard-hitting Ravens safety Ed Reed could be the key to slowing down the Colts

Reed has had a fairly quiet year by his standards, but players like him thrive on the big occasion. This was evident yet again last week as he picked off another interception and made a cheeky lateral to add an extra 20 yards or so to the return. This kind of play is what we’ve come to expect from one of the best safeties in the league. If he can read Manning and get a jump on a couple of receivers, he could help his team to win the turnover battle, which will give them a great chance of the upset. This Ravens team is difficult to score on at the best of times, but once they’ve got themselves a lead, they’re meaner than Scrooge with a toothache.

The key to the Ravens getting in front though, is once again going to be second year sensation Ray Rice. The running back has had a breakout year and he destroyed the Pats last week. If he can have a similar impact on Saturday then the Colts will be in for a testing time. Opponents have averaged over 4 yards a carry against their defence, which is undoubtedly vulnerable on the ground, and if they can’t stop the run then all the pressure will be taken off Joe Flacco once again and the Ravens offense will motor.

The Ravens may need something from Joe Flacco this weekend

If the home side can keep a lid on Rice however, the whole game changes. Last week, all Flacco had to do was hand the ball off to Rice, Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain and then stand back and admire the carnage. He barely even kept up the pretence of running a passing game, only attempting 9 passes all day, of which he completed just 4. These numbers become even more incredible when you consider that two of these four passes were dinks to McGahee and Rice. That means Flacco hit his receivers only twice all day. Twice!! If the Colts can neutralise the rushing game and force Flacco to pass I think they will run out easy winners. Flacco is a developing talent with a cool head on his shoulders, but I don’t think he’s capable of driving his side to a playoff win over these opponents, and in a shootout with one of the greats, there can only be one winner.

The Ravens are a side that you should never count out. They have heart, a crushing defence and a powerful running game. This would be enough to beat most opponents, but squashing two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in a week is a titanic ask for any team.

The running game is very unlikely to dominate as thoroughly as they did against the Pats. Manning is even less likely to serve up four turnovers. Jumping out to another huge lead in hostile territory is a long shot. The Ravens have shown they can do it, and they have the weapons to hurt Indy, but Manning is having yet another special season and I don’t think it ends here.

New York Jets@San Diego Chargers

The San Diego Chargers are the league’s hottest team. They’ve won 11 games in a row since their Week 6 loss to the Broncos. The Jets crept into the playoffs via the back door thanks to two wins against second string outfits. So this one’s a walkover, right?

Not quite. Apart from the fact that the old adage about no easy games has never been truer than in the NFL, the Jets match up well with this Chargers team. They can win this game, and both teams know it. The keys for the Jets will be on the ground when they have the ball, and through the air when they don’t.

Phillip Rivers is one of the most competitive quarterbacks in the league

San Diego have one of the best quarterbacks in the game in Phillip Rivers. The guy is a psychotic competitor, and gives his side a huge edge. Despite the numbers he puts up though, he can be careless with the ball. He’s thrown his fair share of important interceptions. Against a corner like Darrelle Revis he is going to have to be extra careful.

The other option of course, is simply to concede whoever Revis is covering, and look for soft spots in the secondary elsewhere. This is how Rivers should operate. But knowing him, he’s going to want to prove a point. This could be folly, as turnovers win games, and if anyone’s capable of picking off a pass or two, it’s Revis.

If Rivers takes the smart option and swallows his pride, he has more than enough weapons to keep the scoreboard operator busy. Assuming Revis does his blanket impression on Vincent Jackson, San Diego’s premier deep threat, he still has the physical Malcolm Floyd and Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, not to mention LaDainian Tomlinson showing for screens.

Premier corner Darrelle Revis may need to pull something special out of the bag once more

It may sound strange that a team containing one of the all time great running backs in LT and a back up like Darren Sproles is so weak running the ball, but the stats this year have them ranked 31st on the ground, just ahead of the pass happy Colts. That means that if the Jets pass rush can hassle Rivers into mistakes, then they don’t have many other options.

So keeping the score manageable is definitely within the capabilities of Rex Ryan’s underdogs. What about getting points on the board themselves?

Well, rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez took another giant leap in his development last week when he played with a veteran’s maturity in Cincinnati. He ran the offense seamlessly, passed with authority and nearly always chose the right option. He’s going to need another immaculate performance this week to give his team a chance.

Having said that, this offense lives and dies by the run. Thomas Jones is one of the steadiest yard collectors around, and the addition of Shonn Greene as a back-up option and a number of creative wildcard looks has propelled them to the no.1 spot in the rushing charts this year. Last week they terrorised the Cincy defense, racking up over 170 yards on the ground. The Chargers have been vulnerable against the run all year, conceding almost 120 yards per game.

If the Jets can get a steady stream of 1st downs from their rush attack, then it will again take the pressure off Sanchez and allow him to sit back and wait for the right moment to strike downfield. The Chargers secondary has been pretty solid against the pass all season, but if Sanchez has the option of just handing off for a couple of yard every time then there’s no reason for him to pass into coverage.

LaDainian Tomlinson is a sure fire Hall of Famer, but can he pull himself out of his slump?

This is where Shawne Merriman and his linebacking corps will earn their corn. If they can consistently get in the faces of Jones and Greene, make them work hard for their yards and take away the big play on the ground, then the whole game changes. In this respect the game is a very similar match-up to the Ravens-Colts showdown.

The difference here is that while the Chargers and Colts are very similar, the Ravens are a better team than these Jets. While the Jets needed a couple of shocking missed field goals to keep them comfortable against the Bungles last week, the Ravens marched into Foxboro and laid a dynasty to rest with brutal efficiency.

The Jets aren’t a high-scoring offense, and it’s very difficult to keep the game tight against these Chargers. They’ll need everything to go right. They’ve got to win the turnover battle and force Rivers into mistakes. They’ll need to pound the ball down the throat of the defense and monopolise the clock.

All possible, but not likely. The Chargers should have enough to win this one going away.

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