When the Ravens left Reliant Stadium in the early morning hours of Dec. 14 last year, they celebrated a Houdini-like escape from the Houston Texans that was their most improbable win of the season.
They had watched a three-touchdown lead evaporate when Texans quarterback Matt Schaub directed four consecutive second-half scoring drives — the last two covering 99 and 95 yards — to reach overtime.
There, after the last of Sam Koch's seven brilliant punts, the Ravens' exhausted defense made one last charge at Schaub. Pressure up the middle from Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding forced a quick pass that cornerback Josh Wilson intercepted and returned for a game-ending, 12-yard touchdown.
The Ravens were almost — but not quite — too tired to celebrate the 34-28 victory.
"What I remember from last year is how hard that game was, how much we were on the field," Redding said this week. "We were out there a lot. They were making some great plays and keeping us out there on the field. … It was just a hard-fought game on Monday night [between] two teams that did not want to lose."
Off a much-needed bye week, the 3-1 Ravens await Sunday's return match with Schaub and company knowing neither team is the same.
Between injuries and defections, the Ravens could have as many as nine different starters — five on offense — from that game. The 3-2 Texans, who saw their playoff chances end with last year's loss, are desperate once again, having lost their best player on defense (Mario Williams, pectoral tear) and, most likely, their best player on offense (Andre Johnson, hamstring)
The Ravens are like a wary fighter who hasn't forgotten the damage Schaub inflicted in his second-half assault.
"We couldn't get off the field," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "I don't know how many snaps we played in the second half, but it was way more than we needed to. With that team, once you get them down … well, first you've got to get them down, and then once they are down, you have to keep them down because they've got a ton of talent, especially if 80 [Johnson] is healthy."
Andre Johnson had nine catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns for Houston. Schaub threw for 393 yards and scored on five straight possessions, starting with the Texans' last one of the first half.
Even after Koch pinned Houston on its 1- and 5-yard lines in the fourth quarter, Schaub took the Texans on long touchdown drives. He forged a 28-28 tie when he found Jacoby Jones for a 2-point conversion pass with 21 seconds left.
Snaps? The Ravens offense ran 24 plays and punted four times after intermission. The Texans held the ball for 55 snaps and 304 yards. The Ravens' defense was on the field for 86 plays in the game, giving up a total of 489 yards.
New Ravens safety Bernard Pollard remembers that game from the other end of that blunt stick. Pollard, who started for the Texans, had a blind-side sack and forced-fumble against quarterback Joe Flacco.
"We took a shellacking," Pollard said of the Texans. "They've made some changes, [and] one of the changes is, I'm not there. I'm here. It's not about me, though. It's about our team collecting a win."
Pollard and former Texans fullback Vonta Leach, both of whom were signed as free agents during training camp, have already spoken with Ravens coaches about Houston personnel.
Pollard says he knows what to expect from Gary Kubiak, the Texans head coach and play-caller.
"They're going to do some of the same things [as last year], but they're going to dress it up, they're going to move people around," Pollard said. "And that's what Kubiak is very good at doing. But at the same time, we know once the ball's hiked, we're going after that ball."
The Ravens' pass rush already has gotten 11 sacks, and quarterback hits are up after a down year.
"It's a matter of more 'want to'," said Redding, who sacked Schaub last year. "We worked really hard in the offseason on it. We know we're a dominant defense and we know we need to be up there at the top of that category every single year. Last year was a disappointment to us. Terrell [Suggs] got his numbers, but everybody else, we've got to pick it up a little more. We made that statement at the beginning of training camp, and we're living up to it. It's everybody wanting to get there, fighting to get off that blocker and make something happen."