OWINGS MILLS – Here comes the sound and the fury.
The crescendo unfolds tonight at deafeningly loud Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the Baltimore Ravens’ AFC divisional playoff game against the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts.
Ultimately, it’s a football clash waged between dueling virtuosos.
The Ravens (10-7) have to contend with four-time NFL Most Valuable Player quarterback Peyton Manning, the architect of the Colts’ high-octane passing game.
And Manning and the Colts (14-2) have to match wits and strategy with two of the top defenders of the past decade in Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed.
The Ravens have lost their last seven games to the Colts despite containing Manning for the most part.
“Peyton poses a lot of problems,” Reed said. “He’s a good actor. You’ve just got to play ball. You’ve just got to play what you see. Do I have any funny stories? No, there’s nothing fun about that. There’s nothing funny about me going against Peyton.
“After the coin is flipped, that’s it. It’s a different ballgame once the whistle is blown. I’m not playing any games with him. Here I am, there you are. Are you throwing it? Are you breaking it off? Are you hitting him? Are you picking it off? Are you scoring? Ravens win, extra, extra, read all about it.”
Despite vanquishing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, 33-14, in an AFC wild-card playoff last week as he threw three interceptions and lost one fumble, the Ravens aren’t predicted to win this game.
That’s largely because of the location of the game and Manning’s masterful game.
Installed as a 6 ½ point underdog, the Ravens are confident in their abilities.
“Most of the pressure is on them, they’re the top seed,” cornerback Chris Carr said. “We have high expectations. We’ve lost a lot of close games, but we know how much talent we have in this room and we feel like we can beat anybody. Everybody is going to be doubting us, but that doesn’t matter.
“Everybody can say we can win, but we could go out there and lay an egg. And everybody can say we are going to lose and we go out there and play well. So, it just matters how we prepare and how we perform.”
Manning has a rocket for an arm. His intellect is so cerebral that he routinely outsmarts opponents. And his accuracy is unparalleled.
He passed for 4,500 yards, 33 touchdowns and just 16 interceptions despite the Colts resting him and other starters during the final two games of the regular season rather than attempt a perfect season.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh delivered a one-word answer when asked what makes the Colts so difficult to beat: “Peyton.”
It’s not hard to fathom why.
Despite throwing two interceptions and just one touchdown during the first meeting with the Ravens, a 17-15 win in Baltimore, Manning still passed for 299 yards and kept his team competitive against an unpredictable defensive scheme.
“He makes good decisions,” Harbaugh said. More than any other quarterback in the league, he understands coverage. Tom Brady’s really good at it, too, but [Manning] understands the weaknesses of a coverage and probable the coverage better than anyone else and the front, too.
“So, he gets them in a great play. He’s always looking for the right matchup. He wants to get a specific matchup and a specific technique against you. Hopefully, we can do a good job of defending that.”
During the first game, the Ravens’ defense delivered a terrific performance.
Reed and strong safety Dawan Landry picked off Manning, who rarely throws two interceptions.
However, Manning completed 71.1 percent of his throws and he positioned his team when he had to for Matt Stover’s game-winning field goal.
The Ravens seemed to have an answer for everything Manning threw at them, but they still came up short.
What’s going to be different this time?
“Finish,” Lewis said. “It’s kind of the story of our season, no matter what it was. The bottom line for us right now is just to finish games. That’s kind of the energy that guys understand.”
Manning managed to survive a defensive battle the last time the Ravens and Colts squared off during the postseason when Indianapolis was limited to five field goals. He wound up throwing two interceptions in the Colts’ 15-6 win.
Over the course of this series, Manning. has consistently gotten the last word in this running argument with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions against Baltimore.
“I’ve always thought every possession against the Ravens feels like a grind,” Manning said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “Every time you get a first down or certainly are fortunate to get a touchdown, you feel like you’ve done something really good. And I think that will be important this week, trying to get first downs, trying to stay on the field and certainly trying to capitalize in the red zone.”
The Ravens have never won a game at Indianapolis, losing all four previous games there. That includes a 31-3 loss last season in their first game at the Colts’ new stadium.
“I recall it wasn’t very pretty,” Harbaugh said. “I recall them getting out in the first half and pretty much knocking us out. It was a real tough day for the Ravens.”
For his career, Manning has completed 64.8 percent of his throws for 366 touchdowns and 181 interceptions.
He has only been sacked 13 times this season, using his pocket awareness and rapid release to get rid of the football.
“Peyton Manning is a tremendous, tremendous quarterback, and he’s going to move the ball,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “He’s going to complete passes. We understand that, but the thing that we have to do is make sure we play great reps on defense and minimize anything like that happens.”
Defensively, the Ravens feature Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who’s one of the most energetic players in the game despite his 34 years.
“I have great respect for the way he prepares,” Manning said of Lewis. “I can tell by the way he plays how hard he prepares.”
And the NFL’s third-ranked defense has Reed, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, lurking in the secondary. He intercepted Manning twice during the last playoff matchup.
“His instincts, I think, are the things that set him apart from the rest,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said of Reed. “The fact that he can read things as they develop quite early had has the speed to cover a lot of ground to really make you pay for any mistake that you might make is impressive.”
During the past five games, the Ravens have allowed just 12 points per contest.
They have surrendered five touchdowns while registering 11 interceptions and 13 sacks.
They seem to have overcome early-season struggles against top-flight quarterbacks like Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer.
The Colts, though, have a diverse group of receivers in Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and tight end Dallas Clark.
There’s a strong belief in the Ravens’ locker room that the experts are ignoring their recent body of work.
“I feel like we’re on this team’s level or a little better,” Carr said. “We feel like this is a very winnable game. We expect to win, but we know it won’t be easy because they’re a very good football team.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.