NFL Preview - Baltimore (3-1) at Indianapolis (2-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Baltimore Ravens have long been defined by their defense, but it is Joe Flacco and the offense that has the club off to a 3-1 start.
Meanwhile, Andrew Luck's MVP-type start to the season has the Indianapolis Colts at .500.
The two clubs put their winning streaks on the line this Sunday at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.
Lost in the never-ending Ray Rice saga is the fact that the Ravens have ripped off three straight victories since a Week 1 loss to Cincinnati, putting them second in the AFC North behind only the 3-0 Bengals. Baltimore has won three in a row by an average of 17.3 points, posting two blowout wins around a two- point nail-bitter over Cleveland.
Baltimore's latest win came last Sunday on a big game by Steve Smith Sr. over his former Carolina Panthers club, with the wide receiver hauling in a pair of touchdown passes in a 38-10 rout.
Smith spent his first 13 seasons with the Panthers before getting released in March. He signed a three-year deal with the Ravens and came back to haunt his former club, grabbing seven passes for 139 yards.
"I'm 35 years old and I ran around those guys like they were school-yard kids," said Smith.
Flacco threw for 327 yards and also hooked up with Torrey Smith for a touchdown pass, while running backs Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro combined for 124 yards on 29 carries. Each back also found the end zone as Baltimore racked up a season-high 454 yards.
The Ravens are aiming to open a season 4-1 for the fourth time under head coach John Harbaugh and will do so while kicking off a span of two straight and four of their next five on the road. That made last weekend's home win over Carolina all the more important.
"To step up like they did, in a really important game at home, a game that we needed to win," Harbaugh praised of his team. "We're about to head on the road, we're about to be the road warriors here for a while. And that becomes a very important game to win."
The Colts have also picked up a pair of important wins, rebounding from losses at Denver and at home versus Philadelphia to begin the campaign with dominating wins over Jacksonville and Tennessee.
Indianapolis routed the Jaguars 44-17 in Week 3, then blew past the Titans 41-17 last weekend. Luck threw four touchdown passes for a second straight game, racking up 393 yards passing.
Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton both went over 100 yards receiving, with Wayne notching 119 yards and a score on seven catches. Ahmad Bradshaw caught his fourth touchdown pass of the season, the most among all running backs this season.
"We're blessed with a bunch of great playmakers, guys that need the ball in their hands, and as a quarterback that's what you want," said Luck.
At 2-2, the Colts sit second in the AFC South, right behind 3-1 Houston. Their win over Tennessee pushed their winning streak over division opponents to nine in a row.
Needless to say, after posting 85 points in two weeks, the Colts are a pretty confident bunch right now.
"It gives us a mojo and that's what we're taking with us on the road," Bradshaw said of getting to .500. "In every game, the mojo, we just got to have energy at all times, come out playing strong, fast and physical. That's the way we did today."
The Colts will play three of their next four on the road after this game and will try to remain unbeaten against the Ravens in Indy. They have won all four regular-season meetings in Indianapolis and lead the all-time regular-season series 7-3.
These clubs are meeting for the first time since the Ravens won a 24-9 decision at home on Jan. 6, 2013 in an AFC wild card game clash. That marked the final home game in the career of Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, and true to form, the Ravens defense did not give up a touchdown.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
High-powered offenses are set to clash against middle-of-the-road defenses, and both the Colts and Ravens rank in the top three in point differential. Baltimore is second at plus-43, while the Colts are third at plus-41.
The Ravens are sixth in the league with 394.3 yards per game and are averaging 25.8 points per game, while the Colts lead the NFL in scoring at 34.0 PPG and are averaging an NFL high-tying 444.0 YPG.
Luck leads the NFL with 13 touchdown passes, the most ever by a player through the first four games in franchise history. He has also completed passes to nine different receivers in back-to-back weeks.
"He's doing a great job of that, of taking what the defense is giving him and not getting greedy, so to speak, and spreading the ball around," said Colts coach Chuck Pagano. "They've got to make a decision defensively who they want to identify like we do as game- wreckers and take those guys away, but it's going to open it up obviously for somebody else either in the run game or the pass game."
Luck is the first player in NFL history with consecutive games of 370-plus passing yards, four-plus touchdown passes, a 70-plus completion percentage and one interception or fewer.
Flacco, meanwhile, has been helped by an offensive line that has not given up a sack in three straight games. The Ravens prevented the Panthers from getting to Flacco despite tackle Eugene Monroe missing the game with a knee injury. James Hurst stepped in and helped give Flacco time to complete 22 of his 31 pass attempts.
"It's been really good. We get the ball out, and those guys have been holding up big time when we do the play-action, when teams come after us and when we're dealing with really good defensive lines," Flacco said of the unit.
Both quarterbacks are also getting helped by veteran receivers.
Smith became the oldest player in NFL history to notch over 400 yards receiving in the first four games of a season, with the 35-year-old having 429 on 25 receptions.
He can also provide an emotional spark, like he did versus the Panthers, something Colts cornerback Darius Butler knows well.
"I played with Steve in 2011 in Carolina, so I know what kind of a player he is, what kind of attitude he brings to a locker room, to a team. It'll be a great matchup for us on the back end and us as a whole against the Ravens," Butler said.
Wayne, also 35, is coming off his 200th career game and posted the 43rd 100- yard contest of his career. His seven catches moved him past Isaac Bruce (1,024) for seventh most on the NFL's all-time list, while Wayne is just 27 yards shy of passing Cris Carter (13,899) for ninth most all-time and 132 from moving past eighth-place James Lofton.
"I think he's a technician. I think he has mastered the craft of being a wide receiver," Luck said of Wayne.
"He sees coverages incredibly well. He knows what zone, man, where the blitz is coming from. He understands football and I think he's mastered his craft, and he takes it seriously. It's his profession and he gives it the respect it deserves."
The Colts have allowed just five sacks on the year, but they'll need to watch Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had three sacks and forced three fumbles in the last regular-season meeting in 2011. Fellow linebacker Elvis Dumervil has 3 1/2 sacks in his last three games overall, notching 1 1/2 sacks versus Carolina.
Indianapolis defensive tackle Arthur Jones has six tackles on the year, his first with the Colts after spending his first four campaigns with the Ravens. He had 8 1/2 sacks during his time with Baltimore and had a big run of nine tackles, two fumble recoveries and a sack in four playoff games as the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII.
Colts safety Mike Adams had two interceptions last weekend as the Titans avoided throwing towards cornerback Vontae Davis. However, fellow safety LaRon Landry begins a four-game suspension this weekend for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. The ban was announced on Monday and the Colts lose their second-leading tackler in Landry.
This is a key stretch for the Ravens, who have already lost to the first-place Bengals and can't afford to lose much ground during this road-heavy month.
"The challenge is you have to go play another team in their environment, and that takes an incredible amount of discipline and poise," noted Harbaugh. "And the more disciplined and poised we are, the more able we are to execute under (pressure) and tune out the noise ... we'll be good, and that's what we have to do."
However, tuning out the noise in Indy is the least of the Ravens' worries as Luck is red-hot.
Baltimore's defense has been up to the task for the most part this season, but containing Luck on his own turf could prove to be too big a task.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 27, Ravens 23
10/05 07:42:20 ET