INDIANAPOLIS — Conducting yet another NFL clinic of precision and strategy, Peyton Manning launched a series of spirals into his receivers’ outstretched hands.
For a pivotal stretch to close out the first half, the Indianapolis Colts’ star quarterback used the Baltimore Ravens for target practice with a pair of touchdown passes in the final two minutes.
It was a masterful performance from the four-time NFL Most Valuable Player, so much so that it doomed the Ravens’ cause Saturday night in an emotionally devastating 20-3 defeat to the top-seeded Colts during an AFC divisional playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The sixth-seeded Ravens’ season ended with an eighth consecutive loss to the top-seeded Colts who won following a first-round bye for the first time in four tries, issuing a rebuttal to critics that wondered aloud if they had erred in not pursuing a perfect season.
Baltimore (10-8) hasn’t scored a touchdown against the Colts (15-2) in three consecutive games as they lost their second consecutive playoff game to Manning.
“We’re disappointed at the fact we didn’t win this game,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We didn’t play well enough to win this game, on this day, against this team. That’s our disappointment.
“It’s hard for me to put into words how proud I am of them. I think they fought. They fought all year. I think that shows their character.”
By defeating the Ravens, the Colts advance to the AFC title game to play the winner of today’s divisional playoff between the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets.
The Ravens committed four turnovers, including two interceptions and two lost fumbles.
“They just wanted it more,” running back Willis McGahee said.
And the Ravens squandered some prime opportunities in failing to rally back from a two-touchdown deficit in the third quarter.
Manning calmly dissected the Ravens’ defense, patiently delivering the football into tight quarters to engineer a pair of touchdown drives during a dramatic two-minute span to end the first half.
Manning completed 30 of 44 passes for 246 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“If you give elite quarterbacks any air, they’re going to take advantage,” linebacker Jarret Johnson. “That’s something we didn’t do last week against Tom Brady and did against Peyton.”
Manning marched the Colts on a 14-play, 75-yard drive that lasted eight minutes in the second quarter and broke a 3-3 tie.
He capped the drive by lobbing a 10-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Austin Collie. Collie faked a slant, which made cornerback Domonique Foxworth slightly lose his footing.
And Foxworth was unable to make up the ground on Collie who hauled in a crisp Manning throw in the corner of the end zone.
“I don’t know that it was a turning point,” Foxworth said. “We had a whole other half and plenty of time to make things happen.
“Obviously, that was a pivotal moment and a key play, but we could go through a number of pivotal moments and key plays. That was one of many.”
The Ravens’ offense grinded to a halt during the second quarter in a completely ineffectual display.
Baltimore generated a total of nine yards in the second quarter on three possessions. All were three-and-out as quarterback Joe Flacco completed just 1 of 4 passes for minus-1 yards.
Gamely battling back from a hip injury that no longer seemed to be a factor, Flacco completed none of his red-zone throws Saturday.
“We were just off, man,” said wide receiver Mark Clayton, who didn’t catch a pass. “They mixed it up and collectively we just didn’t really hit like we needed to, to win the game.”
Conversely, Manning completed 14 of 18 passes for 105 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 128.0 passer rating in the second quarter.
After one more three-and-out from Baltimore, Manning took over again with 1:26 remaining in the first half.
This time, it took him eight plays to strike again.
After a defensive pass interference penalty on Foxworth gave the Colts a first down at the Ravens’ 14-yard line, another penalty set up Manning’s three-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Reggie Wayne with seven seconds remaining.
Wayne cut inside Corey Ivy for the score to break the plane of the goal line.
The Colts looked anything but rusty after resting their starters for the majority of the final games of the regular season.
“It’s about executing on that day,” Manning said. “I don’t think it matters if you’ve had a bye or you’re playing home or away. This myth that you can’t win after a bye week, I haven’t believed in it.”
Wayne’s touchdown was preceded by middle linebacker Ray Lewis’ debatable unnecessary roughness penalty when he struck Collie with his shoulder and helmet in the middle of the end zone to prevent a touchdown.
Lewis protested the call to no avail.
Referee Carl Cheffers announced that it was “a blow to a defenseless receiver.”
Lewis’ reply was overheard saying through the referee’s microphone, “That’s football.”
“I didn’t see it real well, I thought it was a heck of a football play,” Harbaugh said. “I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
The Ravens’ frustration did nothing but multiply tenfold during the third quarter.
First, offensive tackle Jared Gaither derailed the Ravens’ second drive with a false start and an offensive holding penalty. Flacco threw incomplete on a low pass on 4th-and-3 intended for Demetrius Williams. Williams didn’t make a great effort on the play.
Just when the Ravens looked like they were going to make something happen and claw their way back into the contest, calamity struck again.
Displaying outstanding range, free safety Ed Reed bolted in front of a deep Manning sideline pass intended for Pierre Garcon for an interception.
Dashing up the left sideline down to the Colts’ 27-yard line after switching the football to his right hand, Reed fumbled when Garcon hustled behind him to punch it out of his hands with tight end Dallas Clark recovering.
“If you’re out in the open, you got to put the ball away,” Harbaugh said. “If the ball comes off your body low like that, then he has a chance to knock it out from behind. Obviously, that was a huge play.”
On the ensuing Colts drive, Reed expertly broke on the football as he read Manning’s eyes to jump in front of a deep pass intended for Clark.
However, the interception that Reed returned 54 yards all the way down to the Colts’ 11-yard line was wiped out by Ivy’s pass interference penalty.
The Colts’ final score came on a 33-yard field goal from former Ravens kicker Matt Stover.
The game ended with the Ravens trying to score one final time, but that effort was stopped by a Jarraud Powers interception that was dropped by Ray Rice and deflected into Powers’ hands.
Flacco completed just 20 of 35 passes for 189 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We were just never able to click the way we needed to in order to get back in the game and win the game,” Flacco said. “We weren’t clicking. We weren’t in sync.”
Manning began the game on a hot streak, completing four of his first five passes to set up Stover’s 44-yard field goal.
The Ravens replied immediately with a 15-play, 87-yard drive.
However, they were ultimately stymied inside the red zone and had to settle for a 25-yard Billy Cundiff field goal to tie the score at 3-3.
First, McGahee gained just two yards on a run, fullback Le’Ron McClain dropped a pass and Flacco threw incomplete to wide receiver Mark Clayton.
That pass was dropped by Bethea, who could have scored a touchdown if he had held onto the ball.
The Colts limited Rice to 67 yards on 13 carries one game removed from his 159 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-14 win over the New England Patriots.
Rice also lost a fumble in the fourth quarter when Raheem Brock knocked it out of his hand with a helmet shot and Clint Session recovered.
“Our defense did a tremendous job,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “Anytime you hold that offense the way they run the ball and Ray Rice under 100 yards, our defense did play hard and tackled well and they were opportunistic.”
Last season, the Ravens came up short against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game.
This time, they finished two steps short of the Super Bowl.
“Obviously, we’re not where we want to be right now,” Harbaugh said. “We want to get to the point where we can win the divisional playoff game, win the AFC championship game and we can win the Super Bowl.
“We tried like crazy to be good enough to do that. We’re not good enough yet. We have to find a way to make our team better.”
Reed said that this latest disappointment is particularly hard to deal with. He’s going to contemplate retirement and said it’s a 50-50 proposition whether he’ll play again.
“It’s very tough because these opportunities don’t come often,” said Reed, who has been hampered by a nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder for the past few seasons. “As a player getting older, you don’t know how much you can last. So, it’s hard, man. It’s really hard.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.