The Baltimore Ravens returned to the friendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon, fresh off a much-needed bye week, taking on a hungry and determined Houston Texans squad primed to make it to their first ever AFC Championship Game.
The Ravens held off a Texans rushing attack, led by RB Arian Foster who carried the ball 27 times for 132 yards and a touchdown. The name of the game however was turnovers and the Ravens had four takeaways total – two in the final eight minutes of regulation- to secure the 20-13 victory over Houston in front of a loud crowd of 71,547 at “The Bank” (the largest crowd in Ravens history) and advancing to their second trip to the AFC Championship game in four years under head coach John Harbaugh.
Winning the turnover battle and time of possession were keys to victory in the game, but important because the first two turnovers, all in the 1st quarter, led to both of the Ravens touchdowns on the day. Using the bye week to prepare, the Ravens appeared focused, not committing a single penalty in the game – a first in Baltimore Ravens history – and not turning the ball over once themselves.
The Ravens will travel to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots for the AFC Championship on Sunday, January 22nd at 3:00 pm. The last time the Ravens traveled to Gillette Stadium, they trounced the Patriots 33-14 in the 2009 AFC Wildcard Playoffs.
Grading the Ravens 20-13 victory over Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoffs
Two things stood out in this game; having a healthy Anquan Boldin was a welcome sight for Joe Flacco, and the timing between quarterback and wide receivers looked crisp for the first time in a few months. If only Flacco’s receivers could help him out catching the ball at times, we may be onto something.
Flacco threw the ball efficiently, completing 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Both of those touchdown tosses were set-up by the Ravens forcing turnovers, as Flacco showed nice touch on throws most of the day. Two throws to Boldin were laid perfectly onto his back shoulder, one being his 10-yard touchdown catch. He also lofted a nice pass for WR Torrey Smith in the 1st quarter that Smith dropped.
Flacco’s pocket awareness was poor, however, as he had a ball swatted from his hand in the 1st quarter and luckily recovered by a Ravens lineman. When he gets bottled up, he still has trouble corralling the football and when its the playoffs, protecting the football is necessary.
Running Backs: C-
Ray Rice had a tough day running the football, only gaining 60 yards on 21 carries. The Texans did a nice job of limiting big runs from Rice as his longest carry all day was nine yards. The magic number was for Rice to get 25 touches in the game for the Ravens to have a good chance at winning, and he had exactly that.
Ricky Williams pitched in with six carries for 27 yards. I felt that it should have been Williams, not Rice, getting the call on the 4th and 1 from the Houston 1-yard line that the Ravens were stood up on late in the 3rd quarter. A touchdown there could have put the game out of reach for the Ravens.
For the first time all season, FB Vonta Leach was limited by the opposing team in his blocking abilities. The Texans had a nice game plan for Leach, getting the linebackers to target him early and often. Leach did throw a key block to allow Flacco a few precious seconds on the touchdown throw to Boldin.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: C
The Ravens got Anquan Boldin back from injury for this game and what a return indeed. He looked much faster running his routes and showed great hands. Boldin finished the afternoon with four catches, 73 yards and a touchdown. Flacco and Boldin picked on Texans 2nd-year CB Kareem Jackson all afternoon, he had no answer for Boldin.
Torrey Smith was quiet and held to just one catch for nine yards. Lee Evans may have had one of the biggest catches of his career, hauling in a one-handed, 30-yard reception, with a defender draped on him. Maybe that catch will be a confidence booster for Evans.
The Ravens are going to face New England, a team with an outstanding duo of TE’s that are involved in the passing game. The Ravens need to get their young duo of TE’s more involved in their game plan. Dennis Pitta finished with two catches for 29 yards and Ed Dickson had a catch for 14 yards. Dickson had another drop in the game as the ball, while slightly behind him, was right in his hands to catch.
Offensive Line: D-
Credit the Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with bringing different looks of pressure in the game, because the Ravens offensive line got worked hard all afternoon. On one play, Texans DE J.J. Watt gave guard Marshal Yanda a swim move that Yanda is still trying to figure out. That usually doesn’t happen to Yanda.
On some blitzes and different stunts the Texans threw at the Ravens line, they looked confused at times. Joe Flacco was swarmed most of the 2nd half and was sacked five times. The good news is the Ravens won’t have to face the Texans front seven again, one of the best in the NFL. The even better news? Next week they’ll get New England’s front seven which isn’t quite that good.
Defensive Line: D
The Ravens didn’t generate much of a rush in getting to Texans QB T.J. Yates, and credit goes to Houston’s offensive line, which did a nice job. The Ravens finished the game with zero sacks, which is worrisome. DE Cory Redding finished with three tackles and DT Haloti Ngata finished with just one tackle.
Throughout the last 4-5 weeks, the Ravens have faced some talented offensive lines, but that’s really no excuse with the players that are in the interior. You feel like this group is just ready to break out at some point and hopefully it happens next week.
Ray Lewis wanted to make sure his team stayed undefeated at home this season, while also answering critics, and had himself a good game. Lewis finished with eight tackles and almost had an interception. Terrell Suggs finished with six total tackles, while also defending a pass. Outside of Lewis, the other linebackers were quiet in this game.
A major difference in this game compared to the game in October was that both Suggs and OLB Jarret Johnson were able to set the edge and limit the areas where Texans RB Arian Foster could run. That did not happen in this game as Foster went over 100 yards rushing.
This group stepped up big time in this game. CB Lardarius Webb had a great game, intercepting two passes and recording four tackles. Both he and fellow CB Cary Williams wrapped up and tackled well. They really only had to worry about WR Andre Johnson beating them deep, which he didn’t.
Safety Ed Reed turned it on and turned in his best game of the season. His play was vintage Reed, finishing with six tackles, an interception (which sealed the game) and three passes defended.
Special Teams: B+
Finally, this group held its own on kickoff and punt returns. Outside of the opening kickoff that Texans CB Danieal Manning returned 60 yards, the group kept the Texans in check and didn’t allow them great field position.
Kicker Billy Cundiff was one of the many Ravens who benefited from the bye week. His leg looked strong, connecting on field goals from 48 and 44-yards respectively. Punter Sam Koch averaged nearly 50 yards on his punts, including the longest of 64 yards.
Lardarius Webb still scares everyone when he’s deciding to either return it or call a fair catch. He muffed a punt deep in Houston territory early in the game that luckily reserve LB Albert McClellan recovered.
The offense looked to be on fire in the 1st quarter, but after that it was pretty much quiet time for the Ravens. The drives in the 3rd and 4th quarter lacked direction, as that allowed the Texans to hang in the game.
The defense made sure the Texans didn’t get any closer than it was. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano tried to mix it up and get some semblance of pressure to QB T.J. Yates, but could not. Yates helped the Ravens by throwing three really bad interceptions. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed weren’t going to let the Texans come into Baltimore and beat them on their home turf. The field coaches stepped up big time today for the Ravens.
It wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but the Ravens got it done and head to New England for the AFC Championship. The biggest key to winning that game will be getting to Patriots QB Tom Brady and not allowing him to sit in the pocket and make throws. Just ask Chargers QB Philip Rivers how that worked out for him. Could be a long afternoon for the Ravens if they cannot generate a pass rush.
The Ravens won’t have to deal with the likes of Texans RB Arian Foster in New England, but the Texans RB had an outstanding day, rushing for 127 yards, the first time the Ravens have allowed an opponent to rush for over 100 yards in postseason play.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed both showed that you never count out the great ones, and they proved that in this game. Hopefully the team is feeding off that energy, to get these two guys a Super Bowl ring, because this could be the final chance the Ravens get this far. Standing in the way is a Patriots defense ranking nearly dead last in most defensive categories.
The Ravens will need to have a strong running game and manage the clock efficiently and if they can do those two things, and manage to get the Patriots into some trouble by forcing turnovers, then the Ravens should stamp their ticket for a trip to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI.
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