Colts-Ravens: Will Ray Lewis victory dance be his last?
The Colts-Ravens playoff game marked a victorious return for the Ravens' Ray Lewis. But the 24-9 win won't erase questions about whether the Ravens – or their quarterback – are elite.
In the end, the storylines were just about right.
Ray Lewis, playing in his final home game, started his exultant dance in the middle of the field even before the clock hit 00:00 in a 24-9 victory. He and his Baltimore Ravens will move on to play the Denver Broncos in Denver, extending his Hall of Fame career at least one more week.
Indianapolis Colt Andrew Luck, the first quarterback drafted No. 1 ever to start a playoff game in his rookie season, got to smell the sweat and feel the intensity of the playoffs. He will move on to Year 2 of what could become a Hall of Fame career – though, on this evidence, probably with a significantly different supporting cast.
But it was not football that will keep Peyton Manning and his Broncos up at night worrying.
It was a game in which each team wanted to prove that it was more than what it appeared to be.
The Ravens wanted to show that Joe Flacco was a top-tier quarterback, that they could dominate a team that had overachieved to make the playoffs, that they could get the old Ravens defensive swagger back. The Colts wanted to prove that they were more than a deeply flawed team that had made the playoffs by beating bad opponents with Luck's uncanny ability to make big plays at the biggest moments.
Instead, it was a game in which both teams played precisely to form.
The Colts' flaws were on full display. They could run the ball only sporadically, Luck looked like he was being chased by a pack of dingoes almost every time he dropped back to pass, the Ravens made big runs all day, and then they picked on cornerback Cassius Vaughn like a schoolyard bully in the second half.
Yet never did the Ravens never entirely put the Colts away. The game was only over as a contest when Colts running back Vick Ballard dropped a pass on fourth and short with 3:46 left in the fourth quarter. It was the Colts' sixth dropped pass of the game – the most by any team this year.
What the Ravens did was prove that they are clearly better than the Colts. But for a team that has been to the postseason the past five seasons – and has won a game in each yet failed to make it to the Super Bowl – that's unlikely to be satisfying beyond Sunday afternoon.
After playing the first half with training wheels, Flacco showed his big-play arm to start the second half, lofting bombs to Anquan Boldin that were virtually as high as they were long. It meant that Flacco had nearly as many yards passing as Luck, despite throwing 31 fewer passes.
But his 12 completions in a game is no way to stake a claim to being one of the elite quarterbacks in the league.
It points to the Ravens identity – and their dilemma.
Flacco showed enough to beat one of the weaker defenses in the league – though not convincingly. On this evidence, however, Flacco will be hard-pressed to keep up with Manning in Denver next week or the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, who might lurk in the following round.
Likewise, Lewis fit seamlessly back into the Ravens defense after sitting out since Oct. 14 with an injury. But it's hard to see them getting to Manning – who has a better line in front of him, and is much more likely to recognize what the Ravens are throwing at him – the way they got to Luck.
Sunday, the Ravens did what they had to do: hold serve at home against a team that was significantly less talented. It is next week when they will again have a chance to overturn the narrative, five-years running, that this version of the Ravens is good, just not good enough to make the final step.