Colts special teams vs. Ravens RS Jacoby Jones
Seven seasons ago, the Colts won a playoff game in Baltimore, and they did so without scoring a single touchdown. Five Adam Vinatieri field goals were the Colts' output in a 15-6 grinder against a Ravens club favored to win.
The 2012 Colts will again have Vinatieri's services in Sunday's wild-card game in Baltimore, but a diet of field goals probably won't get it done in this matchup. The '06 Colts had a stronger defense, one jump-started when S Bob Sanders returned from injury. They also had a playoff-tested Peyton Manning in his prime.
Still, the Colts are very capable of giving the Ravens a tough game on Sunday. What rookie QB Andrew Luck lacks in playoff experience he can potentially make up for in sheer talent. Also, the Ravens' defense Luck faces isn't anything as tough as the one Manning had to face in the '06 or '09 playoffs.
There's no doubting Luck's play will be key to the Colts' chances Sunday. So too will the Colts' ability to stop Ravens RB Ray Rice. Indianapolis has had some problems against the run. Limiting Rice's impact on the game is a must for the Colts.
This brings us back to the subject of special teams. The Colts' play in the third phase of the game could also go a long way in determining whether they can upset Baltimore. If the Colts aren't sharp on special-teams coverage, it could cost them dearly against Baltimore, which has one of the game's most dynamic return threats in Jacoby Jones. Jones returned a pair of kickoffs for scores in the regular season and added a punt-return TD in the Ravens' important Week 11 win at Pittsburgh.
While the Colts are just No. 26 in opponent punt-return average and No. 22 in opponent kickoff-return average, they have surrendered just one special-teams score, a punt TD to New England's Julian Edelman on Nov. 18. Edelman's second-quarter TD erased the Colts' 14-7 lead at New England, and Indianapolis wouldn't lead again in a 59-24 defeat.
Pat McAfee handles punts and kickoffs for the Colts. He averaged 69.1 yards on 79 kickoffs with 45 touchbacks. He punted 73 times, averaging 40.3 net yards. Just 32 of his punts were returned, and he forced 14 fair catches.
It should be noted that the Ravens' coverage units have some challenges of their own, what with the Colts having returned a kickoff and punt for scores this season.
Special teams played a major role in the Colts' last playoff win in Baltimore. We know Vinatieri doesn't figure to blink on the playoff stage. Surely the Colts would love to have a chance to turn the game over to him in the final moments.
To get to that point, though, they will likely need to be sound. If they give anything away, the veteran Ravens will capitalize, and this extends to the oh-so-important kicking game.
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*All captions via The Associated Press