BALTIMORE – Inside the Baltimore Ravens’ locker room, All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis adjusted his tie until the knot was perfect and straightened the lapel of his suit jacket.
The former NFL Defensive Player looked ready for business.
So were the Ravens during a convincing 29-14 victory Sunday over the dangerous Houston Texans before 71,154 at M&T Bank Stadium.
The first-place Ravens (4-1) revealed what kind of mettle they have in the fourth quarter, performing adeptly in the clutch against a formidable, albeit injury-riddled squad to retake the lead scoring the final 16 points of the game to put the Texans away.
Between a stingy defense coached by Chuck Pagano that contained star running back Arian Foster and quarterback Matt Schaub, a resourceful offense led by quarterback Joe Flacco and versatile running back Ray Rice and a franchise-record tying five field goals from kicker Billy Cundiff, the Ravens didn’t need last-second heroics to vanquish the Texans. It was the Ravens’ fifth win in five career games against the Texans.
“Chuck came to me on the sideline and said to be considered a great defense, those moments, you’ve got to close out,” Lewis said. “They’re going to play for 60 minutes, and we understood that. For us to go out there and end it the way we did, that’s kind of a staple for who we are.”
It was a balanced effort as Flacco withstood nearly constant pressure to pass for 305 yards. He connected with Anquan Boldin eight times for 132 yards, including a 56-yard bomb, and a 51-yard toss to rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith.
And Rice rushed for 101 yards on 23 carries after gaining only 16 yards by halftime, finishing with 161 yards of total offense.
During the second half, the Ravens outgained the Texans 269 yards to 151. They scored on four of five drives before Flacco took a knee to end the game.
“We are a poised team, and there were times we could have blinked,” said Rice, who caught five passes for 60 yards. “The Texans play tough, but we are poised and the difference is you have guys growing up. Torrey Smith may be a rookie in the book, but he is not a rookie on the field anymore.
“Our biggest asset was sticking with the run. We didn’t get down on ourselves. I would like to thank the coaches for not blinking. Coach [John Harbaugh] said nerve, but I say poise. This is the kind of game that we needed. We needed to be in a fight against a good team.”
Just last December in Houston, the Ravens were rescued from a complete collapse when cornerback Josh Wilson intercepted Schaub for a touchdown in overtime after Baltimore surrendered a three-touchdown lead.
This time, the Ravens responded after Schaub lobbed the football behind free safety Ed Reed for a 32-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones on a well-crafted waggle play in the third quarter.
“It was bad judgment,” Reed said. “We knew the play was coming. I couldn’t believe he threw it, but it was just bad judgment on my part.”
The score staked the Texans to a 14-13 lead, but it was short-lived.
Cundiff knocked in field goals from 25 and 33 yards to reclaim the advantage.
And backup running back Ricky Williams busted into the end zone from four yards out with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter for a 26-14 lead to put the game away. Cundiff tacked on a 40-yard field goal for good measure.
“I hope everyone realized what a good win that is, and what a good team that is,” Harbaugh said. “It was really encouraging to see the way we responded in a tight game in the fourth quarter. To have to come out and really win the fourth quarter in that kind of fashion is a huge statement. You have to do it on both sides.”
The game-winning field goal from Cundiff was set up by a pair of completions to Smith, the Ravens’ second-round draft pick from the University of Maryland.
First, he caught a 19-yard pass on third-and-12 to keep the drive alive. Then, Smith hauled in the 51-yarder to get the Ravens down to the Texans’ 13-yard line.
Although the drive stalled and the Ravens converted just 2 of 4 red-zone situations, the field goal from Cundiff proved to be enough to win the game.
And the Ravens are beginning to build their timing in the deep passing game.
“It was a post and I was able to run over the safety, and Joe made a great throw,” Smith said. “It was right there. I feel like the way we’re going we’re going to make more plays. I’m definitely encouraged based on how we practice. It reassures us.”
Flacco completed 20 of 33 passes, improving his accuracy markedly after slipping to 49.3 percent for the season when he completed only 10 of 31 throws for 163 yards in a win against the New York Jets.
Against the Texans, though, his timing improved despite being sacked twice and hit seven times.
He passed for 178 yards after halftime after the Ravens built a 10-7 lead.
“I have so much confidence in Joe,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “That’s never going to waver. I think it showed why we have so much confidence in him making critical throws, and it’s a big part of why we won the game.
“You can’t back off. If you don’t stay aggressive, it’s hard to win these types of games. I don’t worry about Joe. Joe’s going to do his job. We’re lucky to have Joe. I think everybody in this locker room knows that.”
In the first half, Flacco completed 11 of 19 passes for 127 yards.
“My speech at halftime was simple: ‘I don’t care whether we run or pass it, we need to execute,’” said Rice. “Today was the day that it didn’t look pretty at first, but in the second half, we got it all together. Joe Flacco, making the throws that he made, even under pressure, proved that he’s an elite quarterback.”
The Ravens made a statement early in the game on a 97-yard drive to build a 7-0 lead.
They marched steadily with Flacco hitting Boldin for 14, 13 and 10 yards, Smith for 14 more and locating Rice out of the backfield for 9 and 15 yards.
After consecutive personal fouls by feisty defensive end Antonio Smith, Flacco bulled in from one yard out on the quarterback sneak.
“I think we did a good job of moving the ball, especially early on,” Flacco said. “We made some really big plays and got the run game going a little bit, and we were hitting some big plays in passing game and were able to go over the top.”
That marks the lone first-quarter touchdown surrendered by an improved Texans defense this season.
The Ravens have outscored opponents in the first quarter, 59-7.
“The 97-yard drive where we marched down the field, that started the game for us,” Harbaugh said. “It took them out of the first quarter basically with our offense.”
They also contained Foster, limiting the reigning NFL rushing champion to 49 yards on the ground.
"That’s the top running team in the league last year, so I think that’s a big thing," Harbaugh said.
Although the Ravens’ offense would eventually stall in the first half and the Texans scored when running back Ben Tate’s fumble forced by cornerback Lardarius Webb was pounced on in the end zone by offensive guard Wade Smith, Baltimore was resilient.
Despite an interception thrown by Flacco that deflected off Ed Dickson when he overthrew the tight end in the second quarter, the Ravens made plenty of halftime adjustments.
And Flacco made some plays in the second half when they were needed.
“I saw nerves," Harbaugh said. “I think that’s an old-fashioned word for poised. I saw nerves of steel. When you have a team that knows how to win, and I think our team knows how to win, they find a way to win a really tough game against a good team.”
Surrendering 489 yards of total offense in last year’s game against the Texans, the Ravens gave up only 293 yards to Houston on Sunday. The Texans were missing star wide receiver Andre Johnson due to a pulled hamstring.
Now, the Ravens are off to a strong start as they prepare to travel to play the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5) Monday night on the road. Baltimore has won three games in a row since stumbling against the Tennessee Titans.
“I’m just happy we got things together,” said fullback Vonta Leach, who played for the Texans for the past five seasons before signing with Baltimore in August. “It wasn’t always pretty, but we came out on the winning side.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times