OWINGS MILLS — The maestro is in the building today, orchestrating his act with finger pointing, gestures, yelling and lots of audibles at the line of scrimmage.
Some of it is authentic and some of it is nothing more than smoke.
The presence of Indianapolis Colts legendary quarterback Peyton Manning at M&T Bank Stadium offers the truest test yet of the Baltimore Ravens’ inconsistent defense.
For the Ravens (5-4) to topple the undefeated Colts (9-0), they’ll need to defy the odds against a quarterback who has traditionally owned this defense and has ruled the league this year.
Defending Manning means more than reacting quickly and decisively to his powerful right arm. It’s a matter of also conquering his brain because he’s regarded as the most intellectual quarterback in the NFL.
"Peyton’s like an offensive coordinator with a strong arm," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "Whatever you show him on the field early, he’s going to remember it. When you come back to it, he’ll be ready for it and have an answer prepared. It’s important to show him some different looks and keep him off-balance."
That feat is rarely accomplished, though, against Manning.
He has engineered six consecutive victories over Baltimore, including a playoff win.
And he has completed 157 of 244 career passes against the Ravens for 16 touchdown passes, three interceptions and a 106.1 passer rating.
“I don’t really get into what happened in games past,” Manning said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “The key is just trying to execute, trying to protect the ball. You have to be kind of aggressive and patient together. In a lot of ways those are opposite words, but I think that’s important. It’s always a great challenge playing against these guys.”
Despite having to adjust to new personnel this year with wide receivers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon with Marvin Harrison released during the offseason and Anthony Gonzalez sidelined with a knee injury, Manning is still the scourge of NFL defenses.
He leads the NFL with 2,872 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, 249 completions, 357 attempts and a 69.7 completion percentage.
"What haven’t we seen from Peyton Manning this year?" Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He’s won three or four games for them, basically, at the end. Some people say he’s playing better than any quarterback that’s ever played in the history of the game."
For the Ravens’ up-and-down secondary and pass defense that ranks 13th in the NFL, this is a chance to prove themselves after falling short against many of the elite quarterbacks in the league this year.
That includes the San Diego Chargers’ Philip Rivers, the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Carson Palmer and the Minnesota Vikings’ Brett Favre.
Over the past two weeks, the pass coverage has improved.
Especially in the second half of a loss to the Bengals, and they exploited Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn during a 16-0 win Monday night where they intercepted him twice and held him to 99 yards, 13 completions and a 23.5 passer rating.
Manning and Quinn are at polar opposite ends of the quarterback spectrum, though.
"Definitely, I think we’re ready to the challenge against anybody," cornerback Fabian Washington said. "We get a lot of criticism, but we’re starting to play good football."
Why the sudden change?
Washington believes the Ravens have finally stopped playing uptight football with no pass interference penalties committed against Cleveland.
"We’ve got a don’t-care attitude," he said. "Just go out and play. If you mess up, you mess up."
As a defense, the Ravens have allowed 115 and 74 net passing yards against the Browns.
They’ll need to since Manning has plenty of weapons to choose from.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne leads the AFC with 69 receptions for 879 yards and six touchdowns.
And tight end Dallas Clark ranks second in the conference with 64 receptions for 768 yards and three touchdowns.
Plus, Collie and Garcon have been extremely productive with 38 catches for 401 yards and four touchdowns and 26 catches for 403 yards and three touchdowns, respectively.
The Ravens will be hard pressed to match up with all four of those players providing a dangerous target for Manning.
"The thing you have to do with him is make sure you understand he’s going to complete some balls," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "He’s going to move the ball. You’ve got to take the next play as the most important play. Just go out there with the mindset that your whole deal is to keep them out of the end zone.
"It doesn’t matter if something negative happens. Then the next play has got to be a positive play. When that ballgame is over, if you’ve added up as many as you should, you’re going to be successful."
Unfortunately for the Ravens, they won’t have their best pass rusher, Terrell Suggs, due to a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee suffered against the Browns.
Rookie second-round pick Paul Kruger is expected to fill in as well as substituting Trevor Pryce and moving Dwan Edwards around the defensive front.
For the Ravens, a major key is separating fact from fiction against Manning when it comes to interpreting his band director act at the line. And Manning will be watching the signals of middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed.
"Some of it is a bunch of baloney, from him and me, but then some of it means a lot," Lewis said. "That’s kind of the chess match, what’s real and what’s not. If we bait him into thinking we’re in something that we’re not, we win that own. If he baits us into finding a weakness, then he wins that down.
"It’s going to be a 60-minute chess match. It always has. Every time we play each other there’s always classic games out of us because of the way they understand our defense and understand their offense."
The Ravens have only beaten Manning twice, and that was back in 1998 and 2001.
The Ravens knocked off an undefeated Denver Broncos team earlier this year, but the Colts are a different case altogether.
Indianapolis is coming off a dramatic 35-34 comeback win over the Patriots where they erased a 17-point deficit.
It’s a pivotal game for the Ravens as they enter a tough three-game stretch against the Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers.
"It’s a great opportunity for us where we are," Lewis said. "You’re seeing probably the best team in football, outside the Saints. Peyton Manning is playing out of his mind right now, which is always expected of him."
Especially against the Ravens over the years.
To reverse that trend, the Ravens will need to avoid getting caught up in his distracting motions. Instead, they need to concentrate on technique and coverage schemes to counteract Manning and offensive coordinator Tom Moore’s intricate game plan.
"That whole thing is down to a science," Foxworth said. "I would imagine a good percentage of that is theatrical. I don’t think it serves anyone well to try to figure out Peyton. It’s smarter to try to read keys and formations."