By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun
10:56 PM CST, January 15, 2012
They have played together for so long that certain things become expected. So even after a regular season in which Ed Reed had just one interception in his final 15 games, Ray Lewis felt it coming, simply because he's seen it so many times before.
As the Houston Texans drove into Ravens' territory in the final two minutes looking for a game-tying touchdown, Lewis got the attention of his long-time teammate and made one request.
"I told Ed before the play -- he'll tell you that I was joking -- I said, 'After you catch this interception, don't you pitch it,'" Lewis said. "The confidence that we have in each other is more overwhelming than you can ever imagine."
Reed's interception, coupled with his pass breakup moments later on one final T.J. Yates desperation heave to the end zone, secured the Ravens' 20-13 victory in an AFC Divisional playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium, and the team's third appearance in the AFC championship game in franchise history.
The Ravens will travel to Gillette Stadium next week for a showdown with the New England Patriots that will decide the AFC representative in the Super Bowl.
"This is all we have been dreaming for," said Ravens running back Ray Rice. "We didn't look past anybody this year, and we didn't look past the Texans today. New England is definitely going to be a challenge but we are up for it."
As anyone who has watched the Ravens all year might expect, it wasn't pretty or easy. After taking a 17-3 lead late in the first quarter, the Ravens scored just three points -- a 44-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff with 2:56 to play that gave the home team a seven-point lead -- over the final 46 minutes of the game.
Quarterback Joe Flacco did little to quiet his skeptics, throwing two first-quarter touchdowns but completing just 14-of-27 passes while being hurried all game. Rice gained 60 yards on 21 carries while the Ravens' defense allowed Arian Foster to rush for 95 yards in the first half and 132 for the game, and didn't sack Yates once.
But the Ravens also committed no penalties and didn't turn the ball over once and when their first home playoff game since 2007 was over, they were celebrating one more opportunity to achieve a goal that has eluded them since their Super Bowl win in 2000.
"You win the game no matter what," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who advanced to the AFC title game for the second time in four years, and now owns a 5-3 playoff record. "That's what it really boils down to in a situation like this. This football team won the game no matter what. It wasn't perfect by any stretch, but they found a win to win the football game. And Houston is just at tremendous football team."
Unable to move the ball for the better part of the final three quarters, the Ravens turned to a formula that they have relied on for so many years: a punishing defense that forced four turnovers and pitched a shutout in the second half.
And front and center -- like they have been so many times before -- were Lewis and Reed, who have been criticized at times this season and have recently faced questions about whether they are entering the final days of their storied NFL careers.
Lewis made seven tackles, including a huge play on Foster for a seven-yard loss about midway through the fourth quarter with the Ravens clinging to a four-point lead. Reed, who has gotten some criticism this season for poor tackling and failure to make big plays -- issues that might be explained by an ailing shoulder -- had two pass breakups and six tackles. He was helped off the field following his final deflection, unable to put much weight on his left ankle. But X-rays were negative and Reed left little doubt that he'll play next weekend against the Patriots.
"We feel like we're the big brother of the team, but our offense will get going. We know that," said Reed when asked about the defense carrying the load. "We knew they would make plays when they needed to. It's not going to always be a blowout or a shoot-out game. It's going to be hard fought. It takes a team effort. It's just not offense out there on the field or defense on the field or special teams. It took a team effort. We capitalized on some plays and they did, too. We just made more."
While Reed, Lewis and wide receiver Anquan Boldin -- he caught four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in his return from knee surgery -- played starring roles, the Ravens got their share of unsung performances as well. Tight end Kris Wilson's first catch all year went for a touchdown, his first since the 2009 post-season.
Left guard Ben Grubbs fell on two fumbles that kept drives alive, and Lardarius Webb picked off two Yates passes, including one late in the first quarter that preceded Flacco's 10-yard touchdown pass to Boldin that gave the Ravens a 17-3 lead with a minute, eight seconds left in the first quarter.
Aside from Danieal Manning's game-opening 60-yard kickoff return that set up a Texans' field goal on the afternoon's first possession, the much-maligned special teams coverage units bottled up punt returner Jacoby Jones and set up the Ravens' first touchdown. Jones bobbled Sam Koch's 64-yard punt and it was recovered by Jimmy Smith at the Texans' 3. Three plays later, Flacco hit an uncovered Wilson on 3rd-and-goal from the one.
"I definitely wouldn't have predicted it," said Flacco of his touchdown pass to Wilson, who is normally the blocking tight end.
The Texans' defense, which ranked second in the NFL during the regular season, stiffened considerably after the first quarter. After the touchdown pass to Boldin, the Ravens went three-and-out on three of their next four drives and saw their once 14-point lead cut to four after Foster's 1-yard touchdown run with just under five minutes remaining before halftime. Foster carried the ball seven times for 54 yards on the drive and caught one ball for 12 yards.
Houston wouldn't score again, while the Ravens were thwarted in their best touchdown opportunity of the second half. Leading 17-13, they had fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 2:45 left in the third quarter. Harbaugh kept Cundiff on the sideline, but Rice was stuffed by linebacker Tim Dobbins.
"It wasn't tough at all," said Harbaugh of the decision. "It was easy."
The Ravens' defense certainly prevented Harbaugh from any second-guessing. They forced a three-and-out on the next Texans' possession. Houston's final four drives then ended with a punt, an interception by Webb, interception by Reed, and incomplete pass, thanks to Reed.
"I think it was a Ravens type of victory," said linebacker Terrell Suggs who was kept mostly quiet by Texans left tackle Duane Brown. "I always say this, 'There's a right way to do things, there's a wrong way to do things and then there's the Ravens way to do things.' It wasn't really pretty but, hey, we're not really a pretty team. We got the 'W' and on to the AFC Championship."
And that is all that mattered to these Ravens, who now are one win away from playing in the Super Bowl.
"The only reason you play this game is for the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl," said Lewis. "We have that opportunity right now. Whatever anybody wants to say about us, we are in position. There are two teams left in the AFC, just us and the Patriots. Next week, that's going to take care of itself."
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