OWINGS MILLS — The Baltimore Ravens have transformed winning ugly into an art form, embracing victories without style points and riding their rugged approach all the way to the AFC championship game.
That held true again during their rough-around-the-edges 20-13 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday in an AFC divisional playoff game.
The Ravens (13-4) readily acknowledge that they’ll need to play much better, particularly on offense, to topple the top-seeded New England Patriots (14-3) during Sunday’s AFC title game at Gillette Stadium.
Considering that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be firing spirals into the air to lead a prolific offense, the Ravens’ offense will need to try to keep pace to some extent.
“I think it would be safe to say we are going to have to score points to win this game,” rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith said Monday. “We have one of the top defenses in the league, and we stand by our defense and believe in our defense. They are pretty much the rock of our team.
“For us, we know we are going to have to help them out a lot. We have to try and take care of the ball. We can’t have three-and-outs. We have to keep their offense off the field, keep our defense rested and score points.”
The Ravens managed to win and advance to the next round of the postseason primarily because they forced four turnovers, including three interceptions of rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.
Baltimore didn’t commit a single turnover and wasn’t even penalized once.
However, the Ravens’ offense failed to score for nearly 45 minutes after building a lead of two touchdowns in the first quarter.
"You try to correct things but you can’t really chase backward too much this time of year," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Everything is looking ahead. We’re going to try to play the next game and not trying to replay the last game.
"But third down is going to be really important on both sides, getting off the field and extending drives. Time of possession for us is going to be important in this game. It’s going to be a big red-zone game on both sides, really."
Quarterback Joe Flacco completed 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Texans.
However, Flacco was under heavy duress as rookie defensive end J.J. Watt and rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed combined to sack him five times. Utilizing stunts and speed, Watt and Reed burst past offensive tackle Michael Oher and offensive guard Marshal Yanda.
“They ran some blitz pressure and they did a good job with that,” Harbaugh said. “Basically, they bring the two outside ‘backers off the edge and then five-man pressure and then play man coverage. They ran some games on the right side, especially between Watt and Reed, that were really effective.
“Those two guys are explosive guys. They beat us on that one time, and then they beat us a couple of times one-on-one. So, we need to do a better job blocking that stuff.”
Undefeated in seven games against playoff teams this season with all four losses coming on the road, the Ravens’ offense managed to generate only 11 first downs Sunday and was outgained, 315-227.
Running back Ray Rice was limited to 60 yards, averaging only 2.9 yards per carry against the Texans’ second-ranked defense.
“That’s a good football team over there,” Rice said. “And I’m never going to apologize for a win.”
The Ravens struggled in short-yardage situations, getting stopped in the third quarter on a fourth-and-goal opportunity. Rice was stuffed for no gain at the one-yard line one play after being held to a yard.
Scoring two touchdowns by capitalizing on two turnovers, the Ravens pulled out a win by holding onto a four-point lead for dear life for the majority of the game.
Rice averaged only 2.9 yards per carry.
"You always want to play a little better and the film is not going to lie," Rice said. "We know we have some things to work on. They had a great pass rush and they got inside of us a little bit, but you have to take what’s there and there wasn’t a lot there.
"Our guys did a great job of blocking them. We’ll get it corrected. It’s just another week that we have to get it corrected. We always like to say we strive for perfection. We realize nobody is perfect, but we are trying to get there."
The Ravens won despite scoring only three points in the final three quarters and going three-and-out eight times on 15 offensive possessions with the longest drive being 59 yards.
The Ravens converted only 4 of 16 third downs and averaged only 3.6 yards per offensive play.
“It’s winning by any means necessary,” free safety Ed Reed said. “We feel like we’re the big brother of the team, but our offense will get going. We knew that. We knew they would make plays when they needed to.”
The Patriots ended the regular season ranked second in total offense, second in passing offense.
They’re riding a nine-game winning streak and averaging 37.1 points per contest during that run.
And Brady threw six touchdown passes during the Patriots’ 45-10 rout of the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. He passed for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns during the regular season.
The Ravens finished 15th in total offense, 10th in rushing and 19th in passing.
Asked if he thinks the offense would need to score more points to win this game, Flacco replied, “I would think so. At the same time, we have a good defense. The way they’ve played all year, the way they’ve played in the past, they put points on the board. So I think as an offense, you have to go in there and put points on the board, too.”
The Ravens have won before at New England, trouncing the Patriots 33-14 in the playoffs two years ago, as Rice rushed for 159 yards.
That included an 83-yard burst up the middle for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage.
“We’ve gone out there and played before,” Flacco said. “They are one of the teams, just like us, that’s tough to beat at home. They play very well up there, but we know how tough it is to go into a place like that, a place like here, and win a football game. So we’re going to have to make sure we prepare well all week and bring our A game up there.”
Derided by critics despite going 49-23 since being drafted in the first round, Flacco has passed for 3,610 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this year.
Harbaugh defended Flacco’s latest performance, which wasn’t different from many other of his games during the regular season.
It lacked flash, but Flacco won another game and has now won five of eight career playoff games.
“That’s a winning performance,” Harbaugh said. “I told him I thought he played very, very well. In a lot of situations in this game when he was under duress, he handled himself really well. There were plenty of things he’d like to have back and could have done better, and he’d be the first to tell you that.
“So, you just try to get better, you try to improve and you try to play winning football, no matter what position you play. And that’s what we value around here.”
Never one to let a chance for humor pass him by, Terrell Suggs contrasted Brady versus Flacco heading into a week where those comparisons are sure to follow.
“Tom Brady, he is good-looking,” Suggs said. “Joe has got the Fu Manchu. They’re a good-looking team. We are not a good-looking team. We’re just going to play football, and it’s going to be a fun game.”