HOUSTON—The Ravens are staring down their final two AFC North showdowns after proving bulletproof in the wild West.
They sweated out a late replay challenge, scored touchdowns on two length-of-the-field drives and stepped up defensively with two interceptions to squeeze out a 23-19 win over the Houston Texans yesterday before 70,108 at Reliant Stadium.After watching a 13-point lead dwindle down to four in the fourth quarter, the Ravens (7-7) stayed alive in the playoff race by surviving at the end -- again. Rookie defensive back Chad Williams made a diving interception with 1:57 left in the game -- which withstood a Texans' challenge -- and the Ravens won by a single-digit margin for the fifth time this season.
"Coach [ Brian] Billick said all week, `Do you want to go to the playoffs?,' " Williams said. "We had to pull it out some kind of way. This team has found a way to win. We just have to keep on finding ways to win the next two weeks."
The Ravens' third win in four games evened their record for the fourth time this season and locked them in a second-place tie with the Cleveland Browns (7-7) in the AFC North.
Still 1 1/2 games back of the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1), the Ravens close out their regular season with the Browns at home next week and at Pittsburgh on Dec. 29.
If the Steelers lose at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Monday, the Ravens can capture their first division title by winning out.
To their credit, the Ravens did not look past the expansion Texans (4-10) and learned from their mistakes from a week ago.
After turning over the ball five times last Sunday, the Ravens showed poise with no fumbles or interceptions yesterday. After their running game continually stalled (70 yards on 33 attempts), they found some reliable hands in a previously nonexistent passing game to march 97 and 84 yards for touchdowns. And after only three field goals in his past four games, kicker Matt Stover converted on all three tries, including a 47-yarder in the fourth quarter.
"A lot of teams come in this situation that are more experienced and have better hopes for the playoffs than us and don't close the door," center Mike Flynn said. "But we did. We're alive for another week."
The Ravens sprang to life yesterday when they faced a 7-3 deficit in the second quarter.
Lamont Brightful's 53-yard kickoff return set up a 22-yard field goal by Stover, and then quarterback Jeff Blake went to work on the Ravens' longest drive of the season.
Blake hit receiver Travis Taylor on passes of 23, 30 and 26 yards as the Ravens went 97 yards to take a 13-7 lead with 1:50 remaining in the first half. On his last catch of the series, Taylor out-jumped cornerback Aaron Glenn in the end zone for the 26-yard touchdown.
"We had no choice but to get better now," said Taylor, who had five catches for 96 yards for the game. "It's crunch time. You either come ready to play or you don't play at all."
The Ravens extended the margin to 20-7 with 3:33 left in the third quarter on another marathon drive. Blake capped an 84-yard series by hitting backup running back Chester Taylor, who scored his first career touchdown from 11 yards out.
In the Ravens' two touchdown drives, Blake was 8-for-9 passing for 148 yards.
"I'm going to try to take advantage of [Chester Taylor] out there one-on-one in open space," said Blake, who finished 18-for-30 for 228 yards and two touchdowns. "He's so short [5 feet 11] that I've got to practice lowering my eye level."
The Texans, who had self-destructed with untimely penalties all game, got back into it with the help of the Ravens' special teams.
With four seconds left in the third quarter, Houston punt returner Avion Black sidestepped a diving Bart Scott and dashed 76 yards up the middle of the Ravens' coverage team for a touchdown. The first punt return for a score in the Texans' inaugural season narrowed the gap to 20-14.
"I imagine we'll look at the film [today] and see guys losing their lanes and not tackling," Billick said.
After trading field goals, the Ravens went three-and-out and found themselves at their own 12-yard line following a holding penalty on fullback Alan Ricard. Instead of kicking out of their end zone, the Ravens had punter Dave Zastudil take a safety, running nine seconds off the clock.
The strategic move closed the Ravens' lead to 23-19 but the Texans still had to score a touchdown in the final two minutes to win.
Starting at the Houston 32-yard line, Texans quarterback David Carr threw two incompletions and then zipped a pass to receiver Corey Bradford. The rifle throw deflected off of Bradford, and Williams lunged for his third interception of the season.
Following a replay review, the referees upheld the pick, ruling the ball hit the ground but Williams never lost control of it. Williams then spiked the ball in celebration, and the Ravens ran off the final 1:57.
Of the Ravens' seven wins this season, their defense has now needed to stop a potential game-winning, fourth-quarter drive in five of them.
"We don't mind doing it; actually, we love doing it," said Williams, a sixth-round draft pick who has run back an interception for a touchdown and blocked a punt that led to another score already this season.
"That's a defense's dream to be the last one on the field to secure the game. The guys stand up to the challenge every week."
Now, the challenge is clear-cut.
The Ravens have to complete a sweep of the Browns and upset the Steelers in Pittsburgh. If anything, the Ravens proved they are not ready to leave this playoff hunt without a fight.
"We went on the road in a playoff hunt, and just executed what you have to do to win a game," Billick said.
"I like the way they answered some situations. It bodes well for this team now and in the future."