AFC North: Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts want to improve on being 26th in the league in stopping the run last season.

There’s no better place to start than at nose tackle.

Aubrayo Franklin is a free agent after starting there last season.

The Colts are still high on Josh Chapman, but that’s a position where you need multiple bodies.

A name to keep an eye on once free agency starts Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET is Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones. Colts coach Chuck Pagano is familiar with Jones from when he was defensive coordinator of the Ravens.

Jones had a career-high 53 tackles to go with four sacks last season. Franklin and Chapman combined for 44 tackles and zero sacks last season.

The Colts have the salary-cap space to pay Jones, who is only 27 years old.

“He has definitely put himself in a position that teams could definitely bid on him very high because if you put the tape on, they’re going to like him a lot,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters during the NFL scouting combine last month. “… It’s probably the one contract that he’ll have a chance to sign, a real big one. Guys that sign two big contracts, that’s very unusual. Three almost never happens, so you never feel bad about a guy getting an opportunity.”

Here’s a look at some other defensive tackles who will be on the market:

INDIANAPOLIS -- Terrell Suggs signed an extension with Baltimore on Monday that could keep him with the Ravens for the next five years. If Suggs does play out his contract, he’ll become only the third defensive player drafted in the past 30 years to play at least 16 years with the same team, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

Ronde Barber (16 years) and Ray Lewis (17 years) accomplished the feat with Tampa Bay and Baltimore, respectively.

Suggs isn’t the only defensive player with a chance to also play at least 16 years with the same team.

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis is in line to do it, too.

Mathis was selected by the Colts in the 2003 draft. He's not showing any signs of slowing down now that he’s in his comfort zone in coach Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defensive scheme.

Mathis, who will be 33 later this month, is coming off the best season of his 11-year career. He led the league in sacks with 19.5 and finished second in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting.

Mathis has two years remaining on his current contract. He and the Colts will have to agree to at least one more deal in order for him to join Lewis, Barber and possibly Suggs in elite company.
The starting center for the Baltimore Ravens this season likely will come from Steelers country.

The Ravens traded a 2014 conditional draft pick to the Indianapolis Colts for backup center A.Q. Shipley. With Matt Birk retired, Baltimore will likely go with Shipley or Gino Gradkowski, both of whom are Pittsburgh natives. Ryan Jensen, a rookie sixth-round pick from Colorado State University-Pueblo, will also be in the mix.

Gradkowski still has to be considered the favorite. The Ravens groomed Gradkowski all last season after he was selected in the fourth round. Shipley provides more experience, but not by much. A seventh-round draft pick by the Steelers in 2009, he was on the practice squads of the Steelers, Eagles and Colts before making an active roster last season. He started five games for Indianapolis last season.

Shipley's connection with the Ravens is new run game coordinator Juan Castillo, who was the Eagles' offensive line coach in 2010 when Shipley was there.

The Colts were able to trade Shipley because they have depth at center. Indianapolis returns starter Samson Satele and drafted Khaled Holmes in the fourth round last month.
The Browns will pursue Lions pass-rusher Cliff Avril in free agency, a league source told The Plain Dealer. For this to happen, the Browns would have to be willing to offer a contract that averages about $10 million per season and Avril would have to be comfortable with a position change.

Landing Avril would be a boost to Cleveland's pass rush and represent a big free-agent splash for the team's new regime. Avril is considered one of the top five free agents available this year after recording 29 sacks and nine forced fumbles over the past three seasons.

Avril's production, though, came as a defensive end in the Lions' 4-3 defense. The Browns would be making a big investment in Avril while asking him to shift to an outside linebacker in Ray Horton's new 3-4 defense.

There's no question that Avril would make an impact on a defense that finished 11th in sacks last season. The bigger question is whether the Browns would be overpaying for a defender who struggles against the run and who played only 66 percent of Detroit's defensive snaps last season.

The Browns have to be careful because this is the same situation involving another potential target, the Ravens' Paul Kruger. He's a very effective pass-rusher but doesn't fare well against the run.

According to the Detroit News, the Lions aren't having ongoing negotiations with Avril, who received the franchise tag last year. The paper reported that the Lions may not offer Avril anything more than $8 million per season.

As The Plain Dealer pointed out, the Browns could have the inside track on Avril in free agency. Joe Cullen, the Browns' new defensive line coach, helped draft Avril in 2008 and coached him in his rookie season.

The Browns wouldn't be the only team going after Avril. The Colts could also target Avril after parting ways with Dwight Freeney.
Ray LewisGene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun/Getty ImagesRay Lewis made 13 tackles Sunday in his last home game for the Ravens.
BALTIMORE -- As Ray Lewis took one last victory lap around M&T Bank Stadium, it became clear that the Baltimore Ravens' 24-9 playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts was more than the end of an era in Baltimore. It was the celebration of one.

Lewis' final home game was as nostalgic as it was emotional because it played out like so many in his 17-year NFL career. He once again finished as the game's leading tackler and the Ravens defense once again kept a team out of the end zone. The task will obviously be tougher Saturday facing Peyton Manning, a quarterback they haven't beaten in 11 seasons. But the only history that meant anything Sunday involved No. 52. With every defensive stand, there was a sense that this was how it was supposed to end for Lewis, the face of Baltimore's new franchise ending the season of the city's old one.

There will always be a debate whether Lewis is the game's best defensive player and top middle linebacker, but it's difficult to argue Lewis' impact as a leader. A Ravens team that had looked lifeless in losing four of its final five regular-season games suddenly was ferocious in the playoffs with a relentless pass rush and a punishing running game. The start of Lewis' "last ride" -- which is how he characterized these playoffs in his retirement announcement last week -- was defined by toughness and inspiration.

Just 12 weeks removed from tearing his triceps, Lewis recorded 13 tackles with one healthy arm and was on the field for all 87 defensive snaps. While he didn't make any game-changing plays, Lewis "fueled" a defense that stopped the Colts on three trips in the red zone and turned them away on six drives inside the Baltimore 34-yard line.

Others had bigger days for the Ravens, like wide receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Paul Kruger and running back Bernard Pierce. But make no mistake, this was unequivocally Ray's day.

"I knew how it started, but I never knew how it was going to end here in Baltimore," said Lewis, dressed in a black suit with a purple and yellow tie. "For it to go the way it went today, I wouldn't change anything. It was just a very, very emotional day."

The day began with Lewis emerging from a smoky tunnel for his signature pregame dance, his right arm engulfed by a large brace. He had trouble getting off blockers, although he busted through the line in the first quarter to drop running back Vick Ballard for a 1-yard loss. In the second quarter, he tackled tight end Coby Fleener to stop him short on third down to force one of Indianapolis' three field goals.

Lewis, though, had the embarrassing moment early in the second quarter when he had an interception bounce off his forearms and then his hands before hitting the ground.

"Yes, I will never live that one down," Lewis said. "I'm going to put that one on the brace."

The rest of the game went exactly as planned for the Ravens and even included one surprise.

As the defense came off the field before the two-minute warning, Lewis removed his helmet and the crowd chanted "Ray, Ray, Ray." He started taking off his shoulder pads before being told to stop. Coach John Harbaugh decided to put Lewis in the backfield for the final play as quarterback Joe Flacco took a knee.

"I think we’re all appreciative, grateful for the opportunity to be here and to witness this historic moment in sports," Harbaugh said.

[+] EnlargeJohn Harbaugh and Ray Lewis
Luis M. Alvarez/MCTJohn Harbaugh put Ray Lewis in at fullback for the last play of the game -- Lewis' final at M&T Bank Stadium.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Lewis did his dance near the middle of the field before getting swarmed by teammates. Lewis noticed there were thousands of fans in the stands after doing a couple of interviews and made a lap around the stadium, holding his injured right arm high in the air. It was reminiscent of what Baltimore's baseball legend, Cal Ripken Jr., did in his final game.

"There's no greater reward than for me to take this last victory lap, for me to see my team, because we have a vision," Lewis said. "We're not trying to end here. This is just my last game at Ravens stadium, and it's the most awesome thing you could ever ask for in any professional career."

When it comes to football in Baltimore, it will always be Johnny Unitas and Ray Lewis. And with Lewis on the field, the Ravens won their last 13 home games.

"Ray told us that we were definitely going to win," safety Ed Reed said. "It wasn't going to happen on his last game at Ravens stadium. It was awesome."

The Ravens are now three wins away from sending out Lewis a Super Bowl winner. Of course, the next games will come against Manning and potentially Tom Brady. Besides the quarterbacks, there's a question whether the Ravens can play with the same intensity at top-seeded Denver after such an emotionally charged game Sunday.

Lewis said that won't be a problem after the Ravens lost to the Broncos by 17 points three weeks ago.

"I've already turned in my iPad to get Denver film now," Lewis said. "It’s onto the next one. That’s one thing about being in this business so long. I told them, ‘We don’t have the 24-hour rule now. We have a less-than-12-hour rule,’ because we are back to work. We knew who we have next week. Denver is going to be well rested. We saw them earlier in the year, but now we get them again with all of our guys back. We are really looking forward to it.”

BALTIMORE -- My thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts:

What it means: Even though they slumped in December, the Ravens and Joe Flacco are still tough to knock out early in the playoffs. With a strong game by wide receiver Anquan Boldin and a stingy defense, Baltimore won a postseason game for the fifth straight season. The Ravens also extended the career of Ray Lewis, who announced last week that he would retire at the end of the season. Baltimore won its 13th straight home game with Lewis on the field.

Big-play Boldin: When you talk about the Ravens' playmakers, it's usually Ray Rice and Torrey Smith. But the Ravens advanced on Sunday because of Boldin. He carried the offense in the second half, finishing with five catches for 145 yards, which set a Ravens single-game high in the playoffs. Before this game, Boldin had only one catch longer than 40 yards downfield in his Ravens career, including the postseason. His leaping, 18-yard touchdown catch put the Ravens up 24-9 in the fourth quarter.

Pumped-up defense: A defense inspired by Lewis gave up yards but not a lot of points. In Lewis' final home game, the Ravens held the Colts to three field goals despite Indianapolis having six drives inside the Ravens' 34-yard line. In the fourth quarter, the Colts drove to the Ravens' 18-yard line, but cornerback Cary Williams picked off a tipped Andrew Luck pass on fourth down. Lewis led the Ravens with 13 tackles in what was an ordinary performance. He nearly picked off Luck in the second quarter deep in Colts territory, but the ball bounced off his arms. Lewis finished the game reporting on offense in the final minute and did his dance at midfield as the final seconds ticked off.

Coughing it up: Rice once again had trouble holding on to the ball in the postseason. He fumbled twice Sunday, which marks the fourth straight season he has turned the ball over in the playoffs. It's a surprising stat because Rice fumbled only once in the regular season. The Colts, however, didn't convert Rice's fumbles into points. Luck fumbled after the first one, and Adam Vinatieri missed a 40-yard field goal after the second one. He ran the ball only once after that second fumble. Backup Bernard Pierce had a more productive day with 103 yards rushing on 13 carries.

Flacco rebounds: Flacco is one of the streakiest quarterbacks in the league, and he showed that Sunday. In the first half, Flacco was 5-of-12 for 108 yards. In the second half, he completed 7 of 11 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

What's next: The Ravens advance to play the top-seeded Broncos. Baltimore has lost to Peyton Manning twice in the playoffs and hasn't beaten Manning since the 2001 season.

Ravens lead Colts at halftime

January, 6, 2013
BALTIMORE -- Running back Ray Rice delivered the big play that helped the Ravens take a 10-6 halftime lead on the Colts in Sunday's AFC wild-card game.

Rice made up for a fumble in the red zone by breaking loose for a 47-yard run off a screen play. He stiff-armed linebacker Jerrell Freeman and faked out safety Tom Zbikowski in the open field before getting tackled at the 1-yard line. Vonta Leach scored on the next play to give the Ravens the lead in the final minute of the first half. Rice has 41 yards rushing and 47 yards receiving.

The Ravens' defense let up on the final drive, allowing the Colts to get in field goal range to cut the deficit to 10-6.

In his final game in Baltimore, linebacker Ray Lewis has seven tackles in the first half, which is tied for most on the Ravens.

Ravens-Colts inactives

January, 6, 2013
Here are the inactives for Sunday's AFC wild-card game:

RAVENS: S Omar Brown, CB Chris Johnson, OLB Adrian Hamilton, OL Ramon Harewood, G Jah Reid, WR Deonte Thompson and DT Bryan Hall.

COLTS: WR Nathan Palmer, CB Teddy Williams, Delano Howell, RB Delone Carter, DT Kellen Heard, G Joe Reitz and OT Tony Hills.

ESPN experts predict Ravens-Colts

January, 6, 2013

In the video, Tedy Bruschi and Darren Woodson make their predictions for the Colts at the Ravens.

Here's what the other ESPN experts are predicting:

Eric Allen: Ravens
Mike Golic: Ravens
Merril Hoge: Ravens
Ron Jaworski: Ravens
Chris Mortensen: Ravens
Adam Schefter: Ravens
Mark Schlereth: Ravens
Seth Wickersham: Ravens
Tom Jackson: Ravens
Keyshawn Johnson: Ravens
Mike Ditka: Colts
Cris Carter: Ravens

Good morning from Baltimore

January, 6, 2013
BALTIMORE -- Emotions always run high in the playoffs, but no postseason game this weekend will strike a chord like Sunday's wild-card game between the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts.

This playoff game features the unwelcomed homecoming of the Colts to Baltimore, Chuck Pagano's inspiring battle against leukemia and Ray Lewis' touching farewell to the city of Baltimore.

If the Ravens win, they will play at the second-seeded Denver Broncos on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET. Because my attention will be on the Ravens today, I will provide my take on the Bengals' playoff loss on Monday.

Here are the three keys for the Ravens against the Colts:

1. Lean on Ray Rice. No one on the Ravens is more inspired to extend Ray Lewis' career than Rice, who has been groomed by Lewis to be the team's next leader. And Rice should have plenty of opportunity to make an impact. The Ravens are facing the NFL's fourth-worst run defense.

2. Force Andrew Luck into turnovers. The Ravens have to make Luck look like a rookie. In 11 wins, Luck threw 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions (82.1 passer rating). In five losses, he threw seven touchdowns and nine interceptions (65.4 rating).

3. Capitalize on special teams. The Ravens have a big advantage over the Colts here. Jacoby Jones led the NFL in kickoff returns (30.7-yard average) and was 15th on punt returns (9.2). The Colts have struggled on coverage teams, ranking 26th on punts and 22nd on kickoffs.
Here's the injury report for the Ravens-Colts wild-card playoff game:


Questionable: S Bernard Pollard (chest), WR Tandon Doss (ankle) and G Jah Reid (toe).

Probable: There are 19 players listed, so the Ravens won't be getting fined by the NFL anytime soon for withholding injuries. The most notable one is fullback Vonta Leach (knee and ankle), who returned to practice Friday after sitting the previous day. LB Ray Lewis (triceps), WR Anquan Boldin (shoulder), DT Halot Ngata (knee), LB Terrell Suggs (biceps) and guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder and knee) are also probable.


Out: G Joe Reitz (concussion).

Questionable: S Tom Zbikowski (knee), T Winston Justice (shoulder), RB Delone Carter (ankle), C A.Q. Shipley (knee) and NT Antonio Johnson (ankle).

Probable: Ten players including QB Andrew Luck (knee).
Everyone remembers Ray Rice's first carry as a starting running back in the postseason. Three years ago in New England, he broke an 83-yard run for a touchdown, the second-longest run in NFL playoff history.

What you may not know is how Rice has failed to make an impact on the ground after that game. In five playoff games since, Rice hasn't rushed for more than 70 yards and has averaged 3.3 yards per carry. In comparison, Rice has averaged 4.5 yards per carry for his career in the regular season.

The Ravens need Rice to break that slump against the Colts, who are once again vulnerable against the run. Indianapolis ranks 29th in run defense, allowing 137.5 yards on the ground per game. The Colts have allowed six running backs to gain over 100 yards against them this season: Maurice Jones-Drew, Shonn Greene, C.J. Spiller, Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis. Indianapolis also gave up 352 yards on the ground to Kansas City a couple of weeks ago.

Rice's unspectacular numbers in the postseason are surprising considering his consistency in the regular season. Since 2009, when he became the featured running back, Rice has produced 39 games of at least 100 total yards, the most in the NFL during that span. But Rice hasn't cracked 100 total yards in his last four playoff games.
This Sunday's AFC wild-card game is like six degrees of Jim Harbaugh.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh is the brother of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who coached Colts quarterback Andrew Luck when they were both at Stanford. So, will Jim Harbaugh give an inside scouting report to his brother?

“I hope he would share some stuff with me," Harbaugh said, drawing laughter from reporters.

Harbaugh then added, "What are you going to get? You can see it on tape. He’s a tremendous quarterback. He’s got pluses, and he has things that aren’t so plus. So, it’s like any quarterback. We’ll be looking forward to playing against him.”

It would be foolish for John Harbaugh to not call his brother. Obviously, by working with Luck every day, Jim Harbaugh can provide insight that you can't see on film.

In many ways, it would just be evening the score for the Ravens. You know Colts coach Chuck Pagano is going to draw on his knowledge from last season, when he was the Ravens' defensive coordinator.
Whenever the Indianapolis Colts return to Baltimore, they're seen as the bad guys by local fans who still remember the franchise leaving town on a snowy night nearly 29 years ago. In Sunday's wild-card game, the roles will be reversed.

No one outside of Baltimore is going to be rooting for the Ravens to beat the Colts, a team that has struck an emotional chord with the football world. The Colts have rallied around coach Chuck Pagano's battle against leukemia, going from the NFL's worst team in 2011 to a playoff one in 2012. Pagano has become a beloved figure since last month, when the largely bald and frail-looking coach left the hospital for a day to give an emotional locker-room speech to his players.

Anyone who isn't wearing a purple jersey will be pulling for ChuckStrong, the term that has signified Pagano's fighting spirit. And, up to this point, those wearing purple jerseys were rooting for the Colts and Pagano, who was Baltimore's defensive coordinator last season.

When Pagano was first diagnosed in late September, he sent a text message to John Harbaugh that the head coach shared with the team. When it was reported that Pagano's cancer was in remission, several Ravens tweeted #chuckstrong. Defensive tackle Art Jones even shaved his head in support of Pagano last month.

"He’s a great friend, and I have tremendous respect for him personally," Harbaugh said Sunday. "I love his family, and he’s one of my closest personal friends in coaching. What he’s been through is phenomenal, but we’re all competitors, so that gets set aside. They’re going to come in here with every intention of winning the football game, so we’re going to have to play our best football in order to beat them.”

Perhaps the closest Ravens player to Pagano is safety Ed Reed. Their ties date back to the time when Reed was recruited to play college football at Miami by Pagano. They exchanged texts as recently as Christmas.

"He’s like a dad to me," Reed said. "That’s family, which is first before football."

By Sunday, the Ravens have to beat the man they respect so much to get one step closer to their ultimate goal. And only the Ravens and their fans are hoping that happens.