BALTIMORE — It was fittingly symbolic that veteran middle linebacker Ray Lewis helped hoist Ed Reed into the air late in the fourth quarter, providing a lift when the free safety was hobbled and unable to walk off the field.
Reed twisted his left ankle while knocking down a desperation pass into the end zone, sealing the victory and also triggering some pain one series after he intercepted Houston Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.
It was the Baltimore Ravens’ stingy defense that allowed them to salvage a 20-13 AFC divisional playoff win Sunday over the Texans before 71,547 for the largest crowd ever at M&T Bank Stadium, preventing a collapse and sending them to the AFC championship game for the third time in franchise history.
Now, the Ravens (13-4) will square off with the top-seeded New England Patriots next Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
“I take my hat off to my team, all of the ups and downs we have been through,” said Lewis, who broke out his Super Bowl XXXV championship ring to offer a visual reminder to his younger teammates what they’re shooting for this postseason. “For us to have the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl, you can’t ask for anything more. We played a very, very tough team. We knew what kind of battle we were in for.
"It’s bigger than just reminding them. Sometimes, I have to remind myself to what’s it’s really about. Sometimes, you go into games and say, ‘It’s just another playoff game.’ Actually, it’s not. I know what that moment feels like. To feel that moment again with this team can be a special thing."
The Ravens nearly squandered a 17-3 lead and were clinging to a four-point lead for the majority of the second half, but intercepted Yates three times. Cornerback Lardarius Webb tied a franchise playoff record shared by Reed and Duane Starks by intercepting two passes.
With four turnovers forced, the Ravens were able to withstand the gliding moves of Texans star running back Arian Foster and imposing wide receiver Andre Johnson.
“We feel like we’re the big brother of the team, but our offense will get going,” said Reed, whose injury isn’t regarded as serious. “It’s winning by any means necessary. That’s what it’s got to be.”
Reed’s interception by the end zone with just under two minutes remaining kept the Texans from potentially scoring a touchdown to tie the game.
And Lewis and the defense settled down after Foster ran roughshod over them in the first half for 95 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. He finished with 132 yards, but gained only 37 of them after halftime on a dozen carries. He’s the first running back to ever rush for 100 yards against Baltimore in the playoffs.
It was a performance practically devoid of style points, but that’s nothing strange for the Ravens as they won during their first home playoff game in five seasons.
Still, they committed no turnovers despite some fumbles and weren’t even penalized once.
“I think it was a Ravens type victory,” Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “I always say, ‘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.”
Criticized in recent weeks for their supposed decline with age with Lewis not playing as, Lewis and Reed both contributed heavily to the win.
Lewis recorded eight tackles to lead the defense, tackling Foster for a loss of seven yards. And Reed knocked down four passes, nearly intercepting two more errant throws.
“It’s kind of hard to think about Father Time,” Lewis said. “I don’t have time to think about, ‘when it’s time to do this,’ or ‘when it’s time to do that.’ When it’s over, it’s over. Everybody here has to appreciate that great warriors fight until the end. Those are the stories you’ll always remember.”
Lewis, 36, and Reed, 33, are both former NFL Defensive Players of the Year.
Although Lewis’ range in pass coverage isn’t what it was and Reed plays through excruciating pain due to a shoulder problem and a nerve impingement in his neck, they came through one more time in a pivotal game.
“I don’t want to say that those guys saved their best for last, but the fact of the matter is those guys are the leaders on our team,” said Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, who was limited to 60 yards. “And they showed their mettle.”
Reed defended himself against recent criticism after intercepting his eighth pass in the playoffs, more than any other active NFL player.
"The picks haven’t been coming because they don’t throw my way as much," Reed said. "I got my hand on two or three before that, and didn’t bring them home. It hasn’t been like they’ve been trying in my zone. You’ve got to watch the football game and understand what’s going on.
"Like I said, I missed a couple tackles leading up to this game. It happens. It’s part of the game. I’m also getting old. At one point, I won’t be up here. You’ll be interviewing another safety here in Baltimore."
The Texans regained possession with less than a minute remaining.
However, they were unable to gain a single first down.
The Ravens shut them down one more time, triggering a raucous celebration in their downtown stadium.
The Ravens won despite gaining only 227 yards of total offense and going scoreless for nearly 45 minutes.
“You win the game no matter what,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what it 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.”
The Ravens could have probably put the game away in the third quarter.
After wide receiver Lee Evans set the Ravens up with a graceful 30-yard, one-handed reception up the right sideline and offensive guard Ben Grubbs securing a subsequent Rice fumble to take over the football at the Texans’ two-yard line, Baltimore got stuffed.
Rice rushed for only one yard on third down and then got stopped for no gain by linebacker Tim Dobbins on fourth-and-goal.
The Ravens could have had a seven-point lead with a field goal, but wound up with no points.
Asked if it was a difficult decision to go for it, Harbaugh replied: “It wasn’t tough at all. It was easy.”
The Texans weren’t easy to handle, though.
Not with rookie defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Brooks Reed wreaking havoc on the Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher and offensive guard Marshal Yanda for a combined five sacks.
“We can block a little bit better,” Harbaugh said. “We need to find a way to get those guys blocked. It’s a premier pass rush team, and we didn’t do a great job always of blocking.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco withstood the pressure, delivering two touchdown passes in the first half as the Ravens built a 17-3 lead.
“I thought Joe did a great job under fire,” Harbaugh said. “I thought Joe did a really nice job of protecting the ball in the pocket, stepping up and making a couple of throws.”
Flacco has struggled in the past during his three playoff losses and has bristled about criticism recently. He completed 14 of 27 passes Sunday, throwing two touchdowns with no interceptions.
And Lewis gave Flacco a message Saturday night before the game about staying within himself, akin to how he communicated with quarterback Trent Dilfer during the Ravens’ Super Bowl season.
"Like I told Joe, no one wins games by themselves," Lewis said. "We are in this as a family. We are in this as a team. Nothing on the outside matters. What matters is what we think on the inside of this building and what we feel about him and the confidence we have in him.
"Everything else, you can throw out the window. Joe has come in and led us to the playoffs in each of the last four years. If that was anybody else, they would be praising him. Joe Flacco has done a heck of a job getting us into the position to win."
Texans punt returner Jacoby Jones mishandled a 71-yard punt from Sam Koch in the first quarter, getting crushed by cornerback Cary Williams with rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith recovering the fumble at the Texans’ three-yard line.
Selling a play-action fake, Flacco connected with third-string tight end Kris Wilson for a one-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
It marked the first reception of the season for the journeyman tight end and his first touchdown since catching a13-yard pass for a score in an AFC divisional playoff against the New York Jets in 2009.
“Anytime your number gets called, you can’t get too high or too nervous,” Wilson said. “You just have to do what you know how to do. It’s the same stuff, just stay calm and stay focused and do what you have to do.”
Following a 48-yard Billy Cundiff field goal, the Ravens scored their second touchdown on a 10-yard Flacco pass to wide receiver Anquan Boldin past cornerback Jason Allen.
Boldin was playing his first game since undergoing knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, missing the final two games of the regular season.
Now leading 17-3, the Ravens allowed 10 unanswered points as Neil Rackers hit a 33-yard field goal and Foster punched in a touchdown from one yard out.
The Ravens capped their scoring on a 44-yard field goal with 2:52 remaining to boost their lead to 20-13, ending a nearly 45-minute scoring drought.
Now, the Ravens will begin preparations for an explosive Patriots team headlined by quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
“It’s going to be hard-fought,” Reed said. “These guys are a great football team. A huge fan of coach Belichick and Brady, he’s one of the best to ever play. Somebody’s got to win and somebody’s got to lose. We’re coming, and they know it.”
The Ravens will be underdogs next week on the road, not that they mind.
"This is all we have been dreaming for," Rice said. "New England is definitely going to be a challenge, but we are up for it."
The path to another Super Bowl berth heads through Foxboro, Mass.
"The only reason you play this game is for the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl," Lewis said. "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."