OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens slammed the brakes on Houston Texans star running back Arian Foster the last time he came to Baltimore, jolting him to the ground before he could break into the clear with his trademark jump cuts.
Three months later, Foster and the Texans have stamped their tickets for a rematch against the Ravens, who defeated them, 29-14, on Oct. 16.
The AFC North champion Ravens (12-4) and the AFC South champion Texans (11-6) will square off in an AFC divisional round playoff game next Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens are undefeated in five previous games against the Texans.
By virtue of an impressive 31-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals headlined by Foster dashing for 153 yards and two touchdowns and rookie defensive end J.J. Watt rumbling 29 yards into the end zone on an interception, the Texans won their first playoff game in franchise history.
“Arian Foster is definitely one of the premier backs in this league, I’m a fan” Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They’re a big, physical group, probably one of the best offensive lines in the league.”
However, Foster gained only 49 yards on 15 carries with a long run of 15 yards in the first meeting with Baltimore. Foster also caught six passes for 52 yards.
“I think we slowed him down pretty well,” cornerback Cary Williams said. “Our focus is to stop the run initially and make them one-dimensional. They play into our hands that way.”
Foster rushed for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns, catching 53 passes for 617 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big and fast at 6-foot-1, 229 pounds.
After falling behind 14-13 in the third quarter against Houston earlier this season, the Ravens scored 16 unanswered points to put the Texans away.
Billy Cundiff connected on five field goals.
Quarterback Joe Flacco passed for 305 yards and ran for one touchdown, but was intercepted once by cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin caught eight passes for 132 yard, and running back Ray Rice rushed for 101 yards.
The Texans have undergone massive changes since that game, the sixth week of the regular season.
Quarterback Matt Schaub was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury, and backup Matt Leinart was also ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury.
Now, rookie quarterback T.J. Yates is under center and has done fairly well. The fifth-round draft pick from North Carolina completed 11 of 20 passes for 159 yards and no interceptions with a 40-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Johnson.
In the regular season, Yates won half his six games and passed for 949 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Johnson, who caught five passes for 90 yards Saturday, didn’t play in the first game due to a hamstring injury.
“They’re very capable,” Williams said. “They have great receivers, much like Pittsburgh. They got deep threats. They can stretch the field. They’ve got great tight ends. We have to prepare very well. We expect a war, an all-out war. We have to handle our business.”
The Texans had a resurgent season on defense after hiring former Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips as their defensive coordinator as he installed a 3-4 alignment.
The Texans climbed from 30th in the NFL in total defense last year when they were last in passing defense, improving to second in the NFL in total defense (285.7 yards), fourth against the run (96 yards) and third against the pass (189.7).
Their defense is spearheaded by hard-hitting linebacker Brian Cushing, who led the Texans with 114 tackles along with four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Although star outside linebacker Mario Williams is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, Connor Barwin stepped in for him and registered 11 ½ sacks with safety Danieal Manning quarterbacking the secondary.
The Texans rank fourth in scoring defense, allowing 17.4 points per game.
“They’re a good team,” offensive guard Marshal Yanda said. “They’ve got a good defense, a good running game and a young quarterback.”
All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach played for the Texans until signing with the Ravens in August as Rice’s new lead blocker.
He’s not sentimental about playing his old team.
“It would be another game,” Leach said. “We’re excited, whoever we play. It don’t matter to me. They have to come here and defeat us on our home turf. That’s going to be hard to do.”
The Ravens didn’t take their bye week off entirely, practicing Wednesday and Thursday before being granted three days off by coach John Harbaugh.
“I like the routine,” Suggs said. “I like that we all stayed around. We’re not taking the noose off. They say never take the noose off a mule, because it’s not going back on there. I like that we still all stayed in football and kind of stayed grounded in football.”
The Ravens went undefeated in eight home games this season, winning 18 of their past 19 games at M&T Bank Stadium.
“On any given Sunday, that can be erased,” Williams said. “We have to bring our A game.”
The Ravens haven’t hosted a playoff game since the 2006 season when they lost to the Indianapolis Colts, 15-6, as Adam Vinatieri hit five field goals.
“We love our fans, they’re a big part of winning at home,” offensive tackle Michael Oher said. “Nobody wants to lose at home. You have to protect your territory.”
Regardless of past success against the Texans and other teams, the Ravens are aware that the playoffs are a different animal altogether.
“The type of team we have, we match up with anybody,” six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk said. “The playoffs is a different deal. The lights shine a little brighter. The ante is up. It’s a new season. If you lose, you’re done. At the end of the day, it’s still football.”
And the Ravens’ ambitions are Super Bowl or bust.
"We are a team who is hungry," strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "We can’t settle for anything less than where we are going, the Super Bowl. That’s where we want to go. This is honestly the best team I’ve been on. We’re excited as a team, and we’re going to get this thing rolling."