OWINGS MILLS, Md., Dec. 15 -- So much of the Baltimore Ravens' identity is built around their swaggering defense, and their pride in not allowing 100-yard rushers and not giving up big plays. That defense will face its biggest test of the season in Sunday's nationally televised game in Indianapolis, as it takes on the Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning, who is on the verge of breaking Dan Marino's 20-year-old record for touchdown passes in a season.
"We are going to Indianapolis in the worst possible situation," Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We are going against an explosive offense, the best quarterback who is going for a record, and we will have to see if we are the Ravens' defense that everybody talks about."
Indianapolis (10-3) is ranked first in the NFL in total offense (422.7 yards per game). It has the league's top rusher in running back Edgerrin James (1,395 yards), and three wide receivers who are closing in on 1,000 yards (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and former Raven Brandon Stokely). But most of the attention goes to Manning, who has thrown 46 touchdown passes and needs three more to break Marino's record of 48.
But the Colts have faced only two teams this year that have defenses ranked among the top half of the league, and they are 0-2 against those teams (New England and Jacksonville). Baltimore (8-5) is sixth in the NFL in total defense (287.5 yards per game), and only three teams have scored more than 20 points against the Ravens (Indianapolis averages 35).
Only one quarterback has thrown three touchdown passes against the Ravens: Cincinnati's Carson Palmer did so in the fourth quarter of the Bengals' 27-26 win on Dec. 5. Baltimore's defense has given up three or more passing touchdowns in only 10 games in Coach Brian Billick's six-year, 100-game tenure.
"They don't give you big plays and, because of that, if you have to make a lot of plays against them, they've got enough athleticism that somewhere along the line, someone makes a play to stop you," Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy said of the Ravens' secondary. "I really think it's kind of a heart issue where they just say, 'Hey, we don't want to let people get in the end zone no matter what, no matter how.'"
Manning said that Baltimore's cornerbacks -- a group that includes likely Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, Pro Bowler Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter -- could be the best he's faced this season. Safety Ed Reed leads the NFL with eight interceptions.
"They have excellent players to start with, and I think that's really the key to all defense -- the personnel," said Manning, who has thrown six touchdowns and three interceptions in three previous meetings with the Ravens. ". . . It's always just a real challenge mentally and physically when you play against the Ravens' defense."
Billick said he would rather have the game be a slugfest -- "because that's what we're built for" -- than a track meet, which would favor the Colts. The Ravens have two big, physical corners in Baxter (6 feet 2, 215 pounds) and McAlister (6-1, 206), and being physical with the Indianapolis receivers will be a key.
"It's big, because it's about timing," Baxter said. "If we can slow their timing routes down, get them off pace, and give our defensive line or our linebackers a second or two extra, maybe they can get to Peyton Manning."
But Manning has been sacked only nine times. The Colts run a no-huddle offense, and Manning calls as many as 80 percent of his plays.
"You've got to be more detailed in what you do, and understand that you can't go out there and just give him a look and stay in that look, because he'll pick you apart. He's that smart," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "You have to give him something and take it away, and make him do his audibles, and change the looks and disguise a lot."
The Ravens say that they're not concerned about Manning possibly making history -- so long as they win.
"We don't plan on giving up anything, no records to any of them," Suggs said. "We've got Ed Reed back there, we've got Chris McAlister back there, we've got Prime Time [Sanders] back there. I think the odds are favoring us."