Ravens ready for Manning?

Baltimore needs to be at the top of its game to beat the best of the best

January 15, 2010|By Ken Murray | ken.murray@baltsun.com

Pop quiz: Is there anything more difficult than facing Tom Brady and Peyton Manning six days apart in the playoffs?

Answer: Yes. Getting Philip Rivers the week after that, if you survive.

The road to the Super Bowl is lined with elite quarterbacks, and the Ravens already are familiar with the best of them.

They are just 1-4 this season against quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls. They are 2-6 if you expand the list to the San Diego Chargers' Rivers and the Cincinnati Bengals' Carson Palmer, both Pro Bowl players.

Which is to say, the Ravens have issues with top-flight quarterbacks.

Now they get the guy who might just be the best ever to play the position. When they square off against Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, they will try to replicate Sunday's masterpiece against Brady and the New England Patriots.

But beating an injured Brady does not translate into having an edge against Manning, who this month was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player for a fourth time.

The biggest challenge the Ravens' defense will confront in Indianapolis?

"Peyton," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said without hesitation. "He makes good decisions. More than any other quarterback in the league, he understands coverage. Tom Brady's really good at it, too, but [Manning] understands the weaknesses of a coverage and probably [identifies] the coverage better than anyone else. And the front, too. So he gets them in a great play. He's always looking for the right matchup. He wants to get a specific matchup and a specific technique against you, and hopefully, we can do a good job of defending that."

Manning threw for exactly 4,500 yards this season, struck for 33 touchdowns and gave up 16 interceptions. The 14-2 Colts were second in red-zone offense and seventh in points.

Yet, on Nov. 22, the Ravens were set to defeat Manning and the Colts for the first time since Dec. 2, 2001. They held him to two touchdowns, intercepted two passes, and had a 15-14 lead at home with 10 minutes to play. But Manning drove the Colts 60 yards in nine plays for what became the game-winning field goal.

The Ravens won the turnover battle and were flagged for just two penalties, although one came on the winning drive. What can they do better?

"Finish," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It's the same thing. It's kind of the story of our season."

Still, the Ravens came away from that loss with renewed confidence they can beat the Colts.

"We feel like they're a very beatable team," cornerback Chris Carr said. "We felt like that if we get better, we're a better team than them. We didn't feel like they got lucky exactly because they fumbled on the goal line, which would have put them ahead, too. So they had a couple missed opportunities as well.

"But we definitely felt like, hey, this team, they're supposedly the best in the NFL; we're right there with them."

Manning has a 7-2 career record against the Ravens, throwing for 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His worst game came in the Jan. 13, 2007, divisional round playoff game in Baltimore, when he threw two picks and had no touchdowns in a 15-6 Colts victory.

"I've always thought every possession against the Ravens ... feels like a grind," Manning said this week. "Every time you get a first down or certainly are fortunate to get a touchdown, you feel like you've done something really good. And I think that'll be important this week, trying to get first downs, trying to stay on the field and certainly trying to capitalize in the red zone."

The Ravens have won five of seven games since losing to the Colts, and they corrected some of the issues that afflicted the defense early in the season. They have all but eliminated big plays. Manning hit passes of 66, 31 and 24 yards on them in November, but the Ravens have surrendered only two passes of 30 yards or longer in their past five games.

Cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who was outstanding in his coverage of the Patriots' Randy Moss on Sunday, said problems sprouted in different areas early in the season.

"Inconsistency is kind of what I felt I was seeing," he said. "And I think it's gotten to a point where we've minimized mistakes and we've been more consistent as a unit."

In the past five games, the Ravens' defense has given up just 60 points (12 per game) and five touchdowns, while collecting 13 sacks and 11 interceptions.

Carr pointed to a more relaxed mental state that helped the Ravens clear away the debris from the early-season passing troubles.

"The past couple weeks - really, the last half of the season - we just started to relax," Carr said. "When we lost three in a row, the feeling in the building and outside the building was almost like a panic mode. It kind of makes you play uptight. I think we just relaxed and [said] just go out there and play. Things are never as bad as they seem."

Now comes the acid test. The Ravens will try to roll with the punches Saturday, knowing that it's inevitable Manning will make some big plays on them.

"You have to be extremely patient" against Manning, linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "You've got to stick to your game plan. You can't deviate from what your plan is, whether he hits an 80-yard pass or you're three-and-out. You just have to understand that they're going to get some first downs, he's going to hit a play or two, but you've got to keep playing, keep your head down and keep grinding."

A week after battering an injured Brady, the Ravens face the best quarterback of all with their Super Bowl aspirations on the line.

"You have to expect every single ball to be perfect," Carr said of Manning's passing game. "You say that every week, and you treat every quarterback like they're Peyton Manning. But this is Peyton Manning."

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