BALTIMORE -- So Ray Lewis got to take his victory lap, and the Baltimore Ravens get to live another week. I hope they all enjoyed Sunday's 24-9 playoff conquest of the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium, because next week in Denver could be a very, very different story in the AFC Divisional round. And by that I mean very similar to the way things went when the Ravens last played the Broncos, in Week 15 at home.
That game, which Denver won going way, 34-17, was a 31-3 laugher headed into the fourth quarter. And it's going to be fresh in the Ravens' memory banks all week long as they prepare for the top-seeded Broncos (13-3), winners of a league-high 11 games in a row.
I know. It's a total buzz-kill for Baltimore fans to start talking about the blowout by the Broncos right off the bat. But that's the NFL playoffs for you. They're not double-elimination. One week you're riding high, and the next you're tasting the lowest of the lows. That's the lay of the land.
On Sunday against Indy, the Ravens' level of Lewis-provided inspiration was plenty better than the Colts' season-long story of inspiration. Playing the last home game of his Hall of Fame-caliber 17-year career, the 37-year-old Lewis pumped up a Baltimore team that had lost four of its last five regular season games, and the Ravens defense swarmed Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, blitzing him repeatedly, sacking him three times, and forcing him into 26 incompletions and a meager 59.8 passer rating.
But it's going to take a far better effort than Sunday's if Baltimore (11-6) hopes to stay on the field with Denver for four quarters. The Broncos are the league's hottest team for many reasons, not the least of which is the play of Peyton Manning, the potential league MVP. Denver has lost just one game at home this season, and that was in Week 3 against Houston, before Manning and Co. had hit their stride.
The challenge the Ravens face is immense, but they sounded a confident tone in the glow of the victory over Indianapolis.
"I'm really looking forward to [next week's game]'' said Baltimore receiver Anquan Boldin, who led the Ravens with five catches for a team-playoff record 145 yards, including a game-sealing, fourth-quarter, 18-yard touchdown grab. "I was hoping we would get them. So, they'll see us next week.''
And what's going to be different this time? "We'll make it different,'' Boldin said, before exiting the postgame stage.
Thanks to Lewis' announcement last week that he plans to retire after this season, the Ravens fed off emotion against the Colts. It was Lewis who took center stage before the game, doing his ritualistic gyration of a dance for the last time in front of the home crowd, and then again after the game, when he took a Ripken-esque lap of thanks around the edges of M&T Bank Stadium. Actually, the Ravens couldn't even wait until after the game to get the Lewis tribute started, inserting him on offense on the game's last play, to line up at fullback in the victory formation, as the last line of defense.
But emotion can only take you so far in the NFL playoffs, a harsh lesson the feel-good Colts learned Sunday in Baltimore. Next week, the Ravens likely won't be able to reproduce the emotional crescendo they rode against Indy, and in Denver they'll face a rested and ready team coming off its first-round bye. And they'll do it in less than six days, with the Ravens at Broncos kicking off next week's four-game divisional-round schedule in Saturday's earlier game.
"In the playoffs, you play great teams,'' said the Ravens' John Harbaugh, after securing a playoff victory for the record fifth year in a row, his first five as an NFL head coach. "I like the fact that our team has been here before. We've made this six-day turnaround road trip three other times. This will be our fourth time in five years playing a [playoff] road game on a short week. So we know how to do that.
"We've got a lot of respect for [the Broncos]. Denver came in here and played really well against us and beat us pretty good. We're looking forward to the opportunity to go play them again.''
To the Ravens' credit, they finished strong against the Colts, with their final two quarters being far better then their opening two, when they led Indy 10-6 at halftime. Baltimore had touchdown drives of 80 and 70 yards in the second half, rolling up 253 yards of offense (188 in the first half) on just 28 plays. Quarterback Joe Flacco in the second half was just 7 of 13, but those completions went for a whopping 174 of his overall 282 yards, good for an average gain of almost 25 yards per connection. Baltimore's 441 yards of total offense was a team playoff record, and seven Flacco completions went for at least 20 yards.
But Harbaugh seems to know it'll take much more next week than the lift Lewis provided by returning from his triceps injury after missing everything from Week 6 on in Baltimore this season. The Ravens won't survive two uncharacteristic Ray Rice fumbles next week. It'll take their best game to win at Denver, and the hope is that Sunday was the stepping stone to that performance.
"You can't play a 60-minute football game on emotion,'' Harbaugh said. "You've got to go play football. You've got to go play well. To me, you just don't do that emotionally. Emotion wears out really fast. So, we'll carry that forward. We'll still be emotional and enthusiastic, but the fact that we played well, that's what's important.''
The Ravens' pass rush was their best weapon against Luck, and they sent a steady diet of blitzes at him all game long. Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger led the Baltimore blitz attack with 2.5 sacks, and five of its 10 quarterback hits. But the Denver offensive line is not to be confused with Indy's. The Broncos allowed just 21 sacks this season, second-fewest in the league. That the Colts were missing offensive coordinator/play-caller Bruce Arians didn't help their cause on Sunday. Arians was taken to a Baltimore area hospital Sunday morning, suffering from headaches and nausea.
Lewis, playing with a brace on his injured right triceps area, wasn't exactly instrumental in the Baltimore defensive effort, but he did get credit for a team-best 13 tackles, with one tackle for a loss and an embarrassing drop of an easy interception. His presence gives the Ravens hope for another deep playoff run, but the stiffest challenge in the NFL awaits in the Mile High City.
"I've already turned my iPad in to get Denver film now,'' Lewis said afterward. "It's onto the next one. That's one thing about being in this business so long. I told them, 'We don't have a 24-hour rule now. We have a less-than-12-hour-rule,' because we are back to work. We know who we have next week. Denver is going to be well-rested. We saw them earlier in the year, but now we get them with all of our guns back.''
But the Broncos have a few weapons, too, and chief among them is Manning, who's an old Ravens nemesis, having gone 2-0 against Baltimore in the playoffs as a Colt. Manning and Lewis facing off one last time could be fun, at least for the winner, who gets a date in the Jan. 20 AFC Championship Game.
"They are always classic,'' Lewis said of his career matchups with Manning. "I will tell you that. It's just one of those chess matches. He knows me very well. I know them very well. I think just for me and him back colliding; [but] at the end of the day, it's not about me and Peyton. It's about their team against our team. I just like our team. I love our team right now, and I am really looking forward to going out there and playing them next week.''
Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Lewis. It's always great to have another week of playoff life, especially in the final season of one's career. But looking forward to a date in Denver these days is a dangerous proposition. Their team versus your team is what you're going to get, but it looks like a tough way to earn another victory lap.