With win, Colts stride toward vindication

Gary Brackett (58) and the rest of the Colts' defense gave Ravens QB Joe Flacco little breathing room. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts dictated play to the Baltimore Ravens for much of the first half of their AFC divisional playoff game Saturday yet could not pull away.

The usually partisan fans at raucous Lucas Oil Stadium were growing increasingly restless. These were the same fans who had jeered so vociferously when Colts coach Jim Caldwell yanked most of his starters in the third quarter of a Week 16 game against the New York Jets, squandering a perfect season in the process.

So it was time to reach for the Rust-Oleum, right, and knock some of the malaise from the slow-starting Colts, who had not played a meaningful game in a month?

Uh, not quite.

The Colts found their stride in an eventual 20-3 trouncing of the Ravens, advancing to the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 24 here in the process. To hear quarterback Peyton Manning tell it, there was little reason for the Colts -- or their fans -- to fear otherwise.

"To tell you the truth, I thought we were pretty sharp from the beginning," insisted Manning, who threw for 246 yards and two scores.

"We set the tempo. … People can have an opinion about the way we played it at the end of the season, but I think [the rest] was really important for us."

Certainly, the Colts were the quicker team on both sides of the ball. After stumbling early, Indianapolis' offense scored touchdowns on the final two possessions of the first half. Manning tossed touchdown passes to wide receivers Austin Collie (10 yards) and Reggie Wayne (3 yards) to grab a commanding 17-3 lead at the intermission.

And after allowing the Ravens to go 87 yards on their first possession, which ended with a Billy Cundiff field goal to knot the score at 3, Indianapolis' defense stiffened.

The Colts' defense traditionally stymies the Ravens' attack, and on this night Baltimore amassed only 12 first downs and 270 total yards. It was the Colts' eighth straight victory over the Ravens (counting playoffs).

In the past six games between the two teams, the best rushing output for the Ravens -- the NFL's fifth-best rushing offense during the regular season -- was 98 yards. On Saturday evening, Baltimore managed only 87 yards on 19 rushes.

"They were very quick [defensively], almost like a blur," Ravens halfback Ray Rice said of the Colts. "They make plays, they're very disciplined and they don't miss tackles."

Rice, the NFL's sixth-leading rusher (1,339 yards) this season, gained 67 yards on 13 carries against the Colts. He also led the Ravens with nine receptions for 60 yards, as quarterback Joe Flacco was limited primarily to checkdown routes in the second half.

Apparently, the Colts also didn't pay a price for resting their starters for most of the final two regular-season games. Indianapolis didn't mind the bye it enjoyed last week as a reward for being the AFC's top seed.

In fact, the time off last week might have benefited the Colts beyond allowing their several injured players to heal.

Last week in practice, Caldwell -- who celebrated his 55th birthday Saturday and enjoyed a team serenade after his first playoff victory -- had the Colts' first-team offense go against the No. 1 defense. Usually, the No. 1 units practice against the scout teams.

But the tactic created a sense of competitiveness and eagerness among the players, and several veterans noted after the playoff victory that it added to their confidence as well.

"We knew that if we could play well for three days against our offense, which I consider the best offense in the league, we could handle anything," said defensive end Dwight Freeney, who had four tackles and two quarterback hurries in his most extensive action in a month.

Freeney, who had played mostly on passing downs during the final month of the regular season, said he had "fresh legs" against the Ravens. He noted that he felt "about as good as a veteran can feel" at this point in the season.

Said fellow end Robert Mathis, who also was rested for big chunks of the final two games: "It was more important going into the playoffs to be as close to 100 percent [healthy] as you can be."

Of course, if the Colts fall short in the conference championship at home against the winner of the Sunday's New York Jets-San Diego Chargers divisional game and fail to gain a berth in Super Bowl XLIV, the critics will be back in full voice.

They blasted rookie coach Caldwell and club president Bill Polian for frittering away the Colts' chances for a perfect 16-0 regular season. For this night, though, they were muted by a Colts team that outplayed the aggressive Ravens in virtually every facet.

The Colts had 22 first downs, even with a ground game that has been miserable much of the season and gained only 42 yards on 25 carries Saturday.

But Manning and his receivers -- Wayne (eight catches), Dallas Clark (seven), Pierre Garcon (five), and Collie (four) -- proved lethal most of the evening. Manning, who completed 30 of 44 passes and was rarely harassed by the Ravens' blitzing scheme, was his usual surgical self in picking on virtually every member of the Ravens' defensive backfield.

The only glaring mistakes by Manning were two interceptions on the same third-quarter series by splendid free safety Ed Reed. The first pickoff ended when Reed fumbled the ball back to the Colts after a 38-yard return. The second interception was nullified by a pass interference penalty against nickelback Corey Ivy.

The defense, which swarmed to the ball and penetrated the Ravens' backfield with regularity, forced four turnovers (all in the second half) and held the Ravens and their power running game out of the end zone. Rice had more rushing yards on his first run (83 yards) against the New England Patriots last week in a wild-card playoff victory than he had in the entire game against the Colts.

In short, except for a few hiccups, the Colts appeared to be a well-oiled machine.

It's a well-rested machine, too.

"The time off, playing like we did and then having the bye week, benefited us a lot," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "Regardless of what people thought, or how it was [perceived] as affecting us, we came ready to play."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.