1. The Ravens needed a game like this, a game where they showed up ready to play, but still ended up in a backyard brawl. They needed a game where they were forced to make some adjustments at halftime, and use those adjustments to come up big in the fourth quarter. It wasn't particularly pretty, but that's not a bad thing. Because this game taught us a lot about the 2011 Ravens.
I'm not saying anything revelatory when I point out that the NFL season is a grind, but it's worth mentioning again. It is a freaking grind. Not every win is going to be memorable, or pretty, or dominant. Sometimes, it's just about adjustments and about survival. This win probably won't linger too long in the eyes of many Ravens fans, but I'd argue it told us more about Ravens than the victory over the Jets did.
"This is the kind of game we needed," said Ray Rice. "We needed a fight against a good team."
Even though the Texans were playing without their two best players, I figured this would still be the kind of game that could give the Ravens trouble. Matt Schaub has always been pretty good at holding up against pressure, accurate with the ball even when he takes a beating, and the Texans defense has improved significantly under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. This is a group of players and coaches that came into town knowing their season might be at a crossroads if they suffered another loss. And even though the Ravens dominated on their first offensive possession, the Texans punched right back instead of folding (like the Steelers, Rams and Jets did).
But what impressed me the most was something we learned after the game.
Every week, it seems, we (both the media and the fans) have a debate over whether or not Cam Cameron gets the ball to Rice enough, whether he favors throwing it over running it too much. And don't think for a second the players don't hear that debate, when they're in their cars listening to the radio, or in the locker room or in meetings, talking amongst themselves. I can promise you, they do the same thing we do. But Rice -- who rushed for just 16 yards in the first half -- stood up at halftime and said something that shows just how much he's evolving into a leader on this team. He said he didn't care what the play call was. All that mattered was getting it right.
"'No matter what the play call is, let's execute [better]," Rice says he told his teammates. "If it's a pass, then let's complete a pass. If it's a 3-yard completion, then let's complete it. If it's a 3-yard run, then let's run for 3 yards.' But we can't play like we're down when we're winning."
Football has always been a fascinating blend of emotion, physical execution and tactics. Rice managed to combine all three in the second half. He gave his speech about just focusing on doing your job and letting the coaches do theirs. He got fired up when one of the Texans players grabbed his face mask, twisted his neck, and wasn't flagged. ("I was hot," Rice said. "I let it go, but I was definitely hot.") And he went to running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery at one point during the third quarter (right after a 5-yard loss) and said the Ravens needed to switch from their outside zone running attack to an inside zone. The Texans linebackers were flowing to the ball too quickly, Rice felt, and they'd be vulnerable to inside traps and backdoor cuts. He and Montgomery went to Cameron, and Cameron trusted their eyes and immediately made the switch. Suddenly, the Ravens run game started clicking, which opened up play-action fakes again. Rice finished with 101 yards, including a 27-yard burst that helped put the game away.
"I would like to thank the coaches for not blinking," Rice said. "Coach Harbaugh said it was nerve, but I'd say it was poise."
It's a long season, and you have to be cautious about looking at a snapshot of one moment and assuming it has a much larger meaning. But I think we're seeing a coaching staff that's trusting the input they get from players more. I think we're seeing a team that's able to adapt on the fly. And I think we're seeing a team that doesn't panic. All of that reflects growth from 2010.
2. Joe Flacco will still struggle when he's pressured, maybe even a bit more than he should, but he's getting better at making his best throws when he absolutely has to.
It almost doesn't matter where you stand on Flacco at this point, because if you wait around for a quarter, he's bound to prove you right (or wrong). He spent much of 2010 looking like a Pro Bowl quarterback for one half, and a journeyman the other half, and in 2011, those manic swings have almost gotten more extreme. Some possessions he'll look like a Hall of Famer, and then he'll turn around and look like he's channeling the Ghost of Stoney Case. The ball he threw to Anquan Boldin in the third quarter -- a 56-yard teardrop that led to a field goal by Billy Cundiff and helped the Ravens regain the lead for good 16-14 -- was one of the prettiest passes I've ever seen him throw.
But I think even more impressive, and what I'll take away from this game, was the two perfect throws he made in the fourth quarter to help the Ravens ice the game. The Ravens were leading 19-14 with 6:38 to play when they got the ball at their own 34-yard line, and I thought to myself, "This is exactly the kind of possession where, in 2010, they would go 3-and-out." But Flacco stepped up on second down and fired a laser to Boldin, who was running an out route from the slot, for 11 yards. The very next play, the Ravens ran a naked bootleg and Flacco, rolling hard to his right, threw a perfect ball to Ed Dickson for 13 yards.
They looked, to me, like his two best throws of the night, especially when you factored in the moment and just how accurate they were. When I tracked him down in the locker room to ask about them, Flacco was quick to agree. In fact, those two throws fit right in with what he was talking about in the beginning of training camp, when he stood up and stated that he wanted the ball in his hands at the end of games.
"You've have to convert first downs in that situation," Flacco said. "And when you can make those plays, when you have guys you're confident are going to catch the ball with their hands and made plays in tight spots, especially when the defense is trying to stop the run, it's going to be a good thing for us."
Say what you will about Flacco -- and like a lot of fans, I've said my fair share complimentary and critical things -- he doesn't seem particularly affected either way. Yes, it may be in the best interests of the Ravens to turn to Rice and Ricky Williams to win games, but Flacco still wants a lot of it to fall on his shoulders. He wants to throw passes in those situations. And whether you agree with the call or not, it's still a good thing that Flacco wants to take over. Doesn't matter if he's thrown 11 consecutive incompletions, he still wants to make the aggressive call.
"That's what it's all about," Flacco said. "I think we're all men enough to say 'Hey, this is how we're going to have to win the game. We'd better stick with this in order to win the game. And if we lose it, we lose it. We're all men here. This is NFL football. And I think we're trying to be aggressive. You can't run the ball three times when they're sitting in the box and give it right back to teams. You have to keep the aggression going and keep the momentum going, and I think that's what we're working toward."
3. Even after nearly two years of watching him boom kickoffs and field goals, I'm still not sure we appreciate just how remarkable Billy Cundiff's story is. Even with the new kickoff rules, he's an incredible weapon.
When Cundiff blasted a kickoff into the stands on Sunday -- a kick that, when you think about out, had to travel more than 80 yards in the air -- it really made me smile. I don't know if there are too many people in football history who looked liked their career was over, who then spent two full years out of the NFL, and who then returned to the game and appeared to be even better than they were previously. Imagine if Jameel McClain was cut by the Ravens, spent two years training by himself, and then returned to the league and played at a level on par with Ray Lewis. Because that's virtually the equivalent of Cundiff's story. He set a Ravens team record with seven touchbacks on Sunday, and also made five field goals, tying a team record he shares with Matt Stover.
It's hard to fathom how he got this good. He could very easily be working in some Arizona venture capital firm right now, picking up his kids from daycare after work was over and daydreaming about what might have been with his career. But he never gave up the dream of making it back to the league, even after he was cut repeatedly. He had such a steely-eyed focus toward getting another shot in the NFL, he once took a bag of footballs with him on an island vacation with his wife so he could practice during his downtime. (He said he learned to deflate the footballs and put them in his carry-on after a few football-mad luggage handlers swiped a few of them.)
The Ravens will probably admit they didn't make the right call on Stover three years ago. They should have kept him around for one more season instead of going with Steven Hauschka. But that decision ultimately led them to Cundiff, who might be the best kicker in the league when you consider all his strengths. Not a bad person to pass the torch to.
"Billy kicked a few of those touchbacks into the wind," John Harbaugh said. "It was kind of a little corner crosswind coming at us. Those were amazing kicks. The guy has just been phenomenal."
4. The fact that the Ravens turned Cary Williams into a credible starter is a real testament to the quality of their coaching staff and scouting department.
I'm happy to admit, I was really skeptical of Williams when the Ravens inserted him into the starting line-up. I thought he'd get roasted every Sunday. And after the Tennessee game, it looked like I might be right.
But he's quietly put together three solid games for the Ravens, and he's showing the team that the more reps he gets, the more comfortable he's going to be. Ozzie Newsome said recently he was confident Williams was going to be a good player, and Williams has certainly proven him right.
Williams may not have played his best game on Sunday against the Texans, and he was the first to admit that. But it's not as if he got beat for a long touchdown.
"I had a lot of mental errors," Williams said. "I'm glad you didn't notice them, but I had a lot. I didn't play as well as I should have, but I know I'll get it fixed. It was a learning experience, and another opportunity to work on my craft. I know I can't get lax, especially with guys coming back. I know I can't have too many of those games because there are quarterbacks out there that will make you pay."
But Williams has still done a nice job of solidifying that spot while Jimmy Smith and Chris Carr recover from injuries. Williams has always been his own biggest critic, which is something you might expect from a former practice squad player who feels like he can't afford to ever feel comfortable.
"I wasn't No. 1 on the depth chart, I was more like No. 5," Williams said. "They saw me as a special teams guys. And I knew I could play special teams, but I knew if I could focus on technique all during the offseason, I would get better. And eventually, I'd get to where I am."
5. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but this game was another example of why the Ravens would really benefit from having home-field advantage in the playoffs.
I don't think this Ravens defense is particularly great right now, to be honest. I think it's way too early to say that. I think any comparisons to the 2000 team -- which a few players were making after the Jets game -- are nothing short of blasphemous. But I do think this defense feeds off the emotion of the crowd at M&T Bank Stadium better than any Ravens defense has in years. They play emotional, and right on the edge, but they don't let that emotion goad them into doing dumb things. They aren't racking up personal fouls or throwing tantrums. They're just playing fast, violent, aggressive football, and the energy the crowd injects into the air is a real part of that.
The Ravens need that energy in a playoff game. They need what they had Sunday, a defense feeding off the crowd and holding down the fort until the offense finds itself again. Sure, the Ravens have done some impressive work on the road in the playoffs the past three years. They've won games in hostile environments like Miami, Tennessee, New England and Kansas City. But just because they've done it in the past doesn't mean they'll be able to do it again. I'll never forget what it felt like last year during the Ravens collapse in Pittsburgh. The Heinz Field crowd was going absolutely bonkers, and the entire press box was literally shaking. It felt like I was in an earthquake. In my gut I believe, to this day, that the Ravens would have won that game had it been played in Baltimore.
Harbaugh understands that. He knows that's one of the Ravens' long-term goals -- it's just hard for him to say it while still drilling his "one game at a time" mantra into his players' heads. But the deeper truth is, every game is going to be extremely important from here on out. They can't afford any stumbles like they had in Tennessee.
"I think it would be great for the fans," Harbaugh said, when asked about playing at home in the playoffs. "We love playing here, and we have a good history here. ... We'll cross that bridge when we get there. We have a long way to go before that comes up."