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OWINGS MILLS — Instead of rooks, pawns and bishops, this epic chess match features spirals, strategy and forearm shivers with an all expenses-paid trip to the AFC title game up for grabs.
In todayâ€™s AFC divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts (13-4) at M&T Bank Stadium, the Baltimore Ravens (13-3) will have to contend as much with quarterback Peyton Manningâ€™s cerebral nature as his strong right arm.
Manning audibles at the line on almost every play, switching in and out of calls based on his reads of the defensive alignment. Conversely, the Ravensâ€™ top-ranked defense will try to disguise intentions, blitz packages and coverage schemes.
â€œItâ€™s almost like you can see his brain turning inside his helmet,â€ Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce said of Manning. â€œHeâ€™s so smart that you donâ€™t want to get too caught up in reacting to all his bluffing. Itâ€™s like playing poker with a card shark.â€
The second-seeded Ravens are hoping to prove the adage true about offenses scoring points and defense winning championships, and drop Manningâ€™s all-time playoff record to 4-7 and extend the third-seeded Coltsâ€™ road losing streak to five games this season.
â€œItâ€™ll be a chess match,â€ Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. â€œHeâ€™s a great quarterback that does a lot of great things, but, then again, weâ€™re a great defense. Itâ€™s going to be a heavyweight fight and weâ€™re going to see whoâ€™s going to last.â€
The game within the game is about to heat up between one of the NFLâ€™s most explosive offenses and one of the leagueâ€™s most aggressive, opportunistic defenses.
Manning is known for using hand signals to change plays along with barking out several plays. Some are legitimate, others are just smoke intended to confuse the defense.
â€œIf styles make fights, this has the makeup of a classic,â€ said Hall of Fame offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf, who will call the game for CBS.
The Ravens won’t be standing still on defense. They shift constantly, trying to keep quarterbacks from discovering whether versatile Pro Bowl defender Adalius Thomas is playing safety or linebacker, or if Scott is barreling into the backfield on a blitz or dropping back into pass coverage.
â€œIt becomes a game of cat and mouse,â€ said cornerback Chris McAlister, who will be responsible for guarding All-Pro wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
â€œWe need to show something, not show something and just try to keep him on his toes all day.â€
It’s a battle of minds as much as will and toughness. The smartest, most imaginative side gains the edge, and perhaps the inside track to winning and advancing to within one more victory of earning a berth in Super Bowl XLI.
â€œThey can be very creative,â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick said of the Colts’ offense. â€œItâ€™s very hard to beat this team if youâ€™re just going to sit there and stay static.â€
The Ravens are built for games like this one as they feature a dominant front seven that has produced 60 sacks along with a ball-hawking secondary that leads the league with 28 interceptions and five returned for touchdowns.
The Colts counter with a high-octane offense patterned after the Indianapolis 500, especially gifted receiving tandem of Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
â€œThey know weâ€™re the best offense and we know weâ€™re the best defense,â€ Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. â€œTheyâ€™re going to get our best shot, and we expect to get their best shot.
"When [Manning] knows what coverage youâ€™re in and all that stuff, he can beat you to sleep. Hopefully, we donâ€™t give him that opportunity as easily.â€
Nothing seems to scare the Ravensâ€™ defense as their intimidating brand of football has propelled them to the best record in franchise history and their highest playoff seed ever.
Their stingy performance has spurred debate on how this defense compares with the dominant 2000 edition that spearheaded the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory and set the NFL record for fewest points allowed (165) in a 16-game schedule.This defense leads the league in lowest opposing quarterback rating (63.4) and lowest completion rate (54.8).
â€œArguably,â€ middle linebacker Ray Lewis said when asked if this unit was superior to the 2000 squad. â€œWe can create a lot of hard matchups for people. Itâ€™s very difficult to defend us right now. No disrespect to anyone across the league, but we donâ€™t really worry about offenses. They have to worry about us because weâ€™re coming from so many different ways.â€
Manning has delivered a league-high 31 touchdown passes with only nine interceptions and an NFL-best 101.0 quarterback rating.
Heâ€™s coming off a three-interception outing in a 23-8 wild-card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs where communication with his receivers appeared to be a major issue. He still completed 30 of 38 passes at the RCA Dome.
Today, heâ€™ll be in a hostile environment heightened by the lingering bitterness of the Baltimore faithful who hold a grudge against the Colts for departing Baltimore for the Midwest on March 29, 1984. Plus, thereâ€™s that trash-talking, stealthy and unpredictable defense lying in wait.
â€œI think they are probably the toughest team weâ€™ve played against in terms of having to prepare for a lot of different things,â€ Colts coach Tony Dungy said. â€œThey have talented and smart players who can play a lot of different roles and they donâ€™t give you the same look very often."
Manning has won three consecutive games against Baltimore, including a 24-7 victory to open last season. In those games, the All-Pro quarterback and son of Hall of Fame passer Archie Manning has thrown four touchdowns with one interception.
The Colts have scored just seven touchdowns with 10 field goals in 54 drives in the past four meetings with Baltimore, but have claimed the most important statistic: a 3-1 record.
â€œThe same basic principles are in place,â€ Manning said. â€œWe want to protect the ball, convert third downs and when weâ€™re in the red zone, we want to score touchdowns. But Baltimore makes that a real challenge.â€
To increase the challenge they pose, the Ravens are aware they need to regularly get in Manningâ€™s face.
Pryce, who leads the Ravens with 13 sacks, estimated that heâ€™s only hit Manning about five times in his career. Manning hasnâ€™t been sacked by Baltimore in the past two meetings despite throwing 69 passes.
However, the Ravens have no intentions of deviating from their plan of going after the quarterback. They won’t simply drop extra defenders back into coverage and hope Manning doesnâ€™t pick them apart.
â€œI heard some coordinators in the league say, â€˜Well, you canâ€™t get to him so donâ€™t even try,â€™â€ Ryan said. â€œI have a feeling weâ€™ll try to get to him.â€
Especially Scott, who has been proudly brandishing a large bottle of Tabasco sauce given to him by the Baltimore media for winning the annual â€œGood Guyâ€ award as a nod to his comment about putting hot sauce on a rough tackle of Saints rookie runner Reggie Bush.
â€œIâ€™m going to pour a little of this on Peyton this week, the whole bottle,â€ Scott vowed.
Already this season, the Ravens have out-dueled several talented quarterbacks, including the San Diego Chargersâ€™ Philip Rivers, New Orleans Saintsâ€™ Drew Brees, Pittsburgh Steelersâ€™ Ben Roethlisberger, Atlanta Falconsâ€™ Michael Vick and the Cincinnati Bengalsâ€™ Carson Palmer.
Now, the Ravens face probably their greatest challenge yet. If Manningâ€™s intelligence, accuracy and penchant for finding the open receiver and exposing a defenseâ€™s weak link concerns the gambling Ravens, who have surrendered 16 touchdown passes, it doesnâ€™t show.
â€œRight now, the feeling in this locker room is that, as long as we can stay together and do what weâ€™ve been coached up to do,â€ McAlister said, â€œthereâ€™s not a team that can beat us.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland