INDIANAPOLIS -- The defense was asserting itself, frustrating Baltimore, keeping the Ravens from mounting any sustained challenges.
Still, the Colts didn’t have a takeaway.
Then an unlikely guy got the turnover parade started -- receiver Pierre Garcon.
After Ed Reed cut in front of a Peyton Manning pass intended for Garcon late in the third quarter, the second-year receiver tracked back and put an end to a 38-yard return by punching the ball free from behind. Tight end Dallas Clark recovered.
Perhaps spurred by the effort, and certainly aided by the Ravens’ increasing desperation, the Colts’ D then ended three of Baltimore’s final four possessions with takeaways: Raheem Brock forced a Ray Rice fumble recovered by Clint Session, Antoine Bethea leaped to haul in an interception and Jerraud Powers grabbed one from Joe Flacco too.
The 20-3 win set up Indianapolis as the host of the AFC Championship Game in a week, against the winner of Sunday's Jets-Chargers contest.
As long as Manning is around, the Colts are never going to be known as a defensive team. (Find an old post on that topic here.)
But Saturday was the rare night when a guy like Garcon found himself flipped, sampling life on the other side of the ball for a few seconds. In so many Manning-era Colts games, any side-swapping thoughts have come from a defender craving a chance to get a carry or a catch.
“The defense balled out,” guard Ryan Lilja said, while expressing dismay over the second-half offense. “This defensive unit we’ve got now, these guys are aggressive, they play nasty. We’ve got playmakers all throughout the team. In a game like this, holding them to three points, you can’t say enough.”
But for a Bethea misplay, they might have had the Holy Grail -- a playoff shutout. After a first-possession field-goal drive ended at the Colts’ 6-yard line, the Ravens never got closer than the 19, and that was at game’s end.
The play just before Billy Cundiff connected on the 25-yard field goal, Bethea let a pick he probably would have returned for a touchdown slip through his hands.
“Antoine told us he was going to make it up to us and he got a pick later on, but I still wanted that pick-six, we could have gotten a shutout,” Session said. “But that was a very complete effort. We had some plays where we missed tackles and all that, but for the most part guys were in the right position and we had each other’s back all game.”
A week after he carried the Ravens to a 19-point win in New England with 159 yards rushing, Rice gained only 67 yards on the ground.
“Give them credit,” Rice said. “Their defense is sometimes overlooked because their offense is so good.”
Bethea thought it was as good a defensive effort as his team had pieced together all season.
“I think that ranks right there at the top,” he said. “Our defense played great and it means a lot for us coming off of the bye week, hopefully we can just build on it. You can read the body language of the other team, but you can never let down. We wanted to put the clamps down and we did that. We just want to be known as a team that’s good in all phases.”
Once the Colts had the sort of lead that put the onus on the Ravens to pass, the Colts weren’t shy about sending help for the defensive line.
Flacco had fared well against blitzes in his second season, completing 61 percent of his passes for a 98.6 passer rating with only three interceptions in 174 attempts.
Sunday night, ESPN Stats & Information counted five or more pass-rushers on 11 of the Ravens’ 36 pass plays. Flacco completed only 3 of 10 passes in those situations with a pick, a sack and a passer rating of 6.3
There are lots of numbers and a solid result for the Colts to admire.
But Dwight Freeney circled back to one of his favorite themes: No matter how well a defense plays, it’s never hard to find fault with it.
“As defense is concerned, you can really find something on every play,” he said. “OK, they gained five yards. They should have only really gained two. They had an 8-yard completion? They should have had no completion. Defense you can look at something and say, ‘We need to correct it.’ But I think overall we played good.”