When their offense lined up on 3rd down with 1:38 left Sunday, the Ravens were inches away from Foxborough, Mass. One short surge straight ahead and they were in the AFC championship game.
But when fullback Vonta Leach picked up no yards in a cloud of dust, the Ravens, whose offense struggled to move the ball after a fine first quarter, needed one final defensive stand to survive.
Houston Texans quarterback T.J. Yates heaved a Hail Mary in the final 20 seconds, but when his prayer hit the turf at M&T Bank Stadium, giving the home team a 20-13 win, the Ravens lived to play another game. Their opponents next Sunday will be the high-scoring New England Patriots.
"I would anticipate, against the team we're about to play, you [would] have to do a better job offensively — in terms of numbers and stats and points, of course — than we did today," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's what the humility is all about. … But it's about looking forward."
The Ravens will now have six days to tweak an offense that mustered just seven first downs, 156 yards and three points in the final three quarters of their AFC divisional round victory.
And as safety Ed Reed subtly pointed out while answering a reporter's question about Yates, the Ravens were out-gained by the Texans (315-227). Reed said that he expects the offense to get going, but that the defense still feels like it is the "big brother so [to speak] of the team."
When Sunday's game became one of inches, the little brother struggled.
The Ravens, who have always taken pride in bulldozing opposing linemen, could have avoided some anxiety had they converted a pair of critical short-yardage situations in the second half.
Leading, 17-13, in the third quarter, Harbaugh opted to go for a touchdown instead a field goal on fourth and goal from inside the 1-yard line, but Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins stymied running back Ray Rice inches shy of the goal line. Harbaugh later said the decision to go for it "wasn't tough at all."
Then in the game's final two minutes, Leach ran for no gain, giving the Texans one last gasp.
"We need to find a way to get those blocked," Harbaugh said.
Converting in those short-yardage situations to sustain drives wasn't the only issue offensively.
Quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked five times (2.5 sacks apiece for Texans rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed). Rice averaged just 2.9 yards per carry on 21 attempts against Houston's defense, which ranked second in the NFL in 2011. And Flacco was at times out of sync with his receivers, whether his passes were thrown off-target or clanked off the hands of the receiver.
Also, Texans linebacker Brian Cushing suggested that Cam Cameron's play calls are not very creative.
"They're not such a complex offense where they do a lot of different things," Cushing said.
The Ravens were opportunistic early, though, and that was enough to advance to their second AFC championship game in four seasons under Harbaugh. Flacco tossed two touchdown passes in the first quarter — the first coming after Baltimore pounced on a muffed punt at the Houston 2-yard line — and completed 14 of his 27 attempts on the afternoon for 176 passing yards in his first home start.
Can Flacco go throw-for-throw with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who threw six touchdown passes in a 45-10 home victory over the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night?
"We have won in New England. … 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," Flacco said. "So we're going to have to make sure we prepare well all week and bring our A-game up there."
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