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Ben Smith

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    This can’t be how it ends, with the place shuttered and quiet on America’s loudest weekend, with a roar that comes down across half a century stilled at the height of summer, just when it should be in full throat.
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4 KEY MATCHUPS
Andrew Luck vs. Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, Ed Reed et al.: How Luck goes, the Colts will go, after a rookie season in which he’s thrown for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns. But he’s also been sacked 41 times, an average of 2.5 per game, and he’s thrown 18 interceptions. And he’s going up against an aging but still fearsome defense that’s given up right at two touchdowns per game, has recorded 37 sacks and is a big reason why the Ravens are plus-9 in turnovers; the Colts are minus-12.
Ray Rice vs. Jerrell Freeman: With all due respect to Lewis, Freeman will be the best linebacker on the field Sunday. He leads the Colts with 145 total tackles, including 90 solos, and has two sacks and one interception. If he and his pals can shut down Rice, who’s run for 1,143 yards and nine touchdowns this season, it’ll be up to the sometimes-shaky Joe Flacco to beat them.
Reggie Wayne vs. Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, et al.: Wayne’s resurgent season (106 catches, 1,335 yards, 5 TDs) has been a big part of the Colts’ success, and he’s the undisputed leader of the Colts’ young receiving corps. If Reed, Pollard – the South Side grad leads the Ravens in tackles with 98 – and their sidekicks can shut him down, Luck and the Colts’ offense could be in a world of hurt.
Flacco vs. Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, et al.: If the Colts can keep Rice from gashing them – and they’ve been vulnerable to the run, giving up 137.5 rush yards per game – then it will be up to Mathis, Freeney and the Colts pass rushers to get pressure on Flacco. He’s only thrown 10 picks this season, but he’s been sacked 35 times. If the Colts can get to him a couple of times, they’ve got a chance against an offense that in the last seven weeks of the season scored 20 or fewer points five times.
bensmith@jg.net
Colts
at Baltimore
What: AFC
wild-card game
When: 1 p.m. today
TV: CBS

Another plot twist in Colts’ wild year

– So now January, the playoffs, a few more twists in the plot from whatever mad novelist has taken over the Indianapolis Colts’ outlandish tale.

This week’s installment?

Colts vs. Ravens, in Baltimore, the Colts’ own ancestral home.

Where Chuck Pagano, the Horseshoes’ head coach/unquenchable guiding spirit, got his break as a coordinator, which ultimately brought him to Indianapolis.

Where Jim Caldwell, the previous Colts head coach, is now the offensive coordinator.

Where, the last time the Colts won a Super Bowl, they beat the Ravens along the way.

You could say it doesn’t get any more bizarre than that, but of course this season passed “bizarre” a bunch of miles back.

“Nothing shocks me anymore,” Pagano concurred this week.

And, no, not his team, either, which goes a long toward explaining why they’ve won 11 games in a season you literally couldn’t make up. Now it’s on to Baltimore, where Ray Lewis may be playing the last game of a decorated 17-year career, and where the fearsome Ravens defense can’t wait to get at Andrew Luck, who’s thrown 13 of his 18 interceptions away from Lucas Oil Stadium. Who picks the Colts, given all that?

On the other hand … why not, given everything that’s happened?

They talk a lot about “respecting the process” in this locker room, and if that’s been the conscious design of Pagano and Bruce Arians and the coaching staff, it’s also been something organic, too, a survival mechanism in a season without the usual landmarks. If you respect the process, the process becomes all. If you move with blinders on from point-to-point-to-point, everything else going on around you fades to insignificance.

“I don’t think you can wholesale change anything,” Luck said. “We’ve been very successful up to this point, so I just think we have to stick with the same process, the same preparation. It’s Wednesday today, so we’ll worry about Wednesday.

“We’re not going to worry about what may happen Sunday.”

Only what, by this point, they almost expect to happen.

“We’re here to play now. We’re not building for next year and years to come,” says tight end Dwayne Allen.

“We’re playing like we want to go far in the playoffs,” cornerback Vontae Davis concurs.

And you, Dwight Freeney?

“Obviously, we’re doing tremendous things with a lot of young guys,” he said this week. “I don’t know if there’s a record or what to that. I have no idea. But we set goals at the beginning of the year. It wasn’t just to get to this point and that’s it.”

And so … onward. Toward whatever mad plot twist awaits next.

“I can’t explain (this season),” Pagano says. “None of those guys can explain it. We’re just kind of riding the wave, if you will.

“Like I said before, we’re just going to stick to the process and do the same things we’ve been doing week in and week out … You can get caught up in the playoff hype and all that other stuff, but at the end of the day, they’re going to kick that ball off and it’s still football. Field doesn’t change, it’s a different team, you just pull the decals off and slap a different decal on there and you’ve got another 60-minute game to play.”

– Ben Smith, The Journal Gazette

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