INDIANAPOLIS – They've studied Ray Rice's legs and Joe Flacco's arm. They've heard about Ray Lewis' heart. They've talked about the Baltimore-Indianapolis connections. They've finished practice.
There's only one question left, and it can't be answered definitively until Sunday:
Can these Indianapolis Colts win a playoff game in Baltimore?
The Colts have overachieved this season. An 11-5 record? That was unfathomable last spring when owner Jim Irsay hugged Peyton Manning and blew up the roster. To reach the playoffs in rookie quarterback Andrew Luck's first season, with the tough leukemia fight of coach Chuck Pagano thrown in, is a success no matter what happens Sunday.
Common sense says a veteran Baltimore team, playing at home, will bully these young Colts into submission. I've had trouble applying common sense to this year's run, however.
“It's not gonna be easy,” Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. “We've got to be ready to face some adversity, which we've had that all year. And be able to throw a counter-punch whenever we get punched.”
These Colts will be punched by the Ravens. It'll come early when Lewis, starting his retirement tour, incites a crowd already predisposed to hate the Colts for a franchise move that happened before Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Vick Ballard, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener were even born.
“No one out there in purple is going to be your friend,” Wayne said to the younger players. “Have tunnel vision. Play ball like you've been playing.”
They'll be punched by the running game of Rice, a Pro Bowler again after his franchise-record fourth straight 1,000 yard season. They'll be punched by a Ravens defense that still has pride if not the production of their vintage style.
They'll be punched by the defensive savvy of Ed Reed, who has a nose for the football like no other safety in the game, even as he's aged.
“Stay away from Ed Reed,” Wayne advised Luck. “He's a ball hawk. Look him off.”
The main thing in the Colts' favor is the fact they're used to being punched. As Wayne suggests, they'll need to counter-punch. And they know how. They've won seven games in the fourth quarter or overtime. They were down 21-3 at halftime to the Green Bay Packers, the first game after Pagano took medical leave and the game Pagano says means the most to him – so far.
The deer-in-headlights look the Colts seemed to display at times on the road, in particular at the New York Jets and the second half of the New England game, has been discarded. Luck and the youngsters have a season under their belts, eight road games. Their last trip, to Houston, was foiled only by turnovers and botched plays.
“There's a lot of fight in this team,” Colts safety Tom Zbikowski said.
The Colts have learned to punch back not only with Luck and the offense, but with a secondary that includes three players who have earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors: Vontae Davis, Darius Butler and Cassius Vaughn. That secondary has been able to turn momentum in ways not thought possible earlier in the season.
Indianapolis' pass rush might be at its healthiest this season, with Dwight Freeney playing as if he's staging his own farewell tour (and it might be, as far as in a Colts uniform). Cory Redding, a former Raven, is ready to return from being banged up. He'd like to go back to the old stomping grounds and stomp around.
“I believe we're ready,” Redding said. “We put in the work. We went out there in the freezing cold enduring the elements. It was colder than it's going to be in Baltimore. We're prepared.”
The Colts can win this game, and it's not complicated. It's as simple as being punched, and counter-punching.
They'll need to avoid turnovers, as Luck and the offense have done the last three weeks with only one giveaway. They'll need the long drives that Luck and the offense have become rather adept at, delivering enough of a run game with Ballard to open up the passing lanes for Luck.
Special teams play must be sharp. When the Colts beat Baltimore in the 2006 season playoffs, Adam Vinatieri kicked five field goals for the entire Indianapolis scoring. It's important, too, that the Colts' return game of Deji Karim on kicks and Hilton on punts be effective. They might not need a 101-yard return by Karim. They'd take a third of that every time.
The Colts displayed the necessary combination of business demeanor and looseness heading onto the playoff stage. That's a tribute to Wayne, Mathis, Redding and the other veterans.
It'd be easy to feel satisfied with this season and its unpredicted 11-5 result.
The Colts want more.
“We know the stakes are higher, the energy and excitement is higher,” Pagano said. “We don't get caught up in all of that stuff. We'll do what been doing for the last 16 weeks and that will be good enough.”
The Colts can win this game. Wayne is right. It won't be easy.
But would anything complete this incredible season better than an AFC Divisional round trip to Denver, where Manning awaits? I could see some real interest in that one.