The last time the Ravens and Colts met in the playoffs, in January 2007, the Ravens brought a heavy burden of great expectations to the game. They were favored, playing at home, and their fans framed the game in highly symbolic, almost desperate terms, as the chance to finally exact revenge on the Irsay family for taking the team and its colors and history to Indianapolis.
I have never seen this town in such an emotional frenzy. And you know what happened. The Colts whipped the Ravens and went on to win the Super Bowl. Baltimore was left crestfallen, utterly depressed.
Three years later, on the eve of Ravens-Colts Playoff II, the roles are reversed. The Colts are favored, playing at home, expected to win. And like Baltimore circa 2007, their fans are framing the game in highly symbolic terms. Having already been severely criticized for resting their starters in their last two games and spoiling an undefeated season, the Colts better win Saturday or they'll be royally second-guessed, lambasted, for not knowing what they're doing.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are in a great place psychologically. This time, there's no pressure. They're the No. 6 seed, lowest in the AFC playoff field. After hammering the Patriots in a game most of the world picked them to lose last week, they're getting to play the "no one respects us" card, which always plays well here. And if I'm reading my local football fever thermometer correctly, this time around against the Colts it's more of a game to the fans, as opposed to a crusade.
Oh, sure, Baltimore will be giddy if the Ravens win; the achievement of getting to a second straight AFC title game will be that much sweeter with a win over the Colts, of all teams, serving as the springboard.
Still, there's a different feeling this time. The fans aren't talking about exacting revenge, making the Irsays pay. And they shouldn't. Frankly, that game is over. The Colts have won seven straight games against the Ravens since 2002. If the Ravens finally win one, and they're due, the subtitle will be "Whew, it's about time," not "Ha! That'll teach those Dolts a lesson." Let's face it, there's no such lesson to be imparted. The Colts, whether they win or lose tomorrow, have become everything they weren't in their final years here – soundly-operated, consistent winners, a model franchise. They seem to go undefeated into December every year with Peyton Manning under center.
But for all their success, they've struggled in the playoffs, where they're 7-8 with Manning – 3-8 if you take away their Super Bowl-winning year. I was surprised to learn this week that they had earned a first-round bye only three times in that span, and even more surprised to learn they had lost their playoff opener in each of those three years when they earned a bye.
The Ravens, meanwhile, play better in the postseason than they do in the regular season. Their playoff record is 8-4 overall, a gaudy 6-2 on the road. They're the team you don't want coming to town, their smash-mouth style, built around defense and the running game, especially effective in January.
Playing emotionally loose, without the heavy burden that weighted them down in 2007, the Ravens should be, at the very least, a tough out tomorrow. They lost to the Colts by two points in November but, according to Ravens defensive back Chris Carr, "We came out of that game saying, 'We're as good as those guys,'"
Sure, there are concerns. They should be able to run effectively (the Colts' rush defense was ranked 24th during the regular season) but the passing game has to be more productive than it was last week -- you can't win many playoff games with four completions -- and with quarterback Joe Flacco gimping around, that's not assured. Plus, it's imperative that the defense, having played much better lately, not backslide into any bad habits. Early stops would keep Manning from dominating and also exacerbate the must-win pressure on the Colts. That's how upsets occur.
It's unclear how much the Ravens were affected by the revenge mania that overtook Baltimore three years ago; players, understandably, tend to worry more about technique than such extraneous matters. But regardless, it's surely nice to be on the other side now, just showing up and playing, no burden, no expectations, dangerous as can be.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.