PITTSBURGH — The Ravens expected the offense to stay on the field on fourth-and-1 with an 11-point lead early in the fourth quarter. They weren't surprised when offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak opted to pass on third-and-1 in Pittsburgh Steelers territory a couple minutes later.
And they certainly weren't taken aback when, on the play after Terrell Suggs' interception, Kubiak called for the knock-out punch rather than a run to kill some clock.
"Kubiak told us the night before the game that we were going to come after these guys and that we weren't going to be playing conservative," Ravens left guard Kelechi Osemele said. "We were coming here to win. We could see that from the first couple of series, the way that we were driving the ball down the field and taking shots and guys were making plays. I really liked it. I kind of wish that we did it the whole year."
The Ravens' 30-17 victory over the Steelers in the AFC wild-card round Saturday night at Heinz Field was defined by an aggressiveness and fearlessness that also characterized their Super Bowl run two years ago. Those traits are also what make the Ravens a dangerous postseason team as they get ready for another road playoff game against a high-powered and favored opponent.
After dispatching their biggest rival and winning a playoff game for the sixth time in seven seasons under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens will face the top-seeded New England Patriots at 4:35 p.m. Saturday in the divisional round.
Players vowed to bring the same aggressive mindset to Gillette Stadium, where the Ravens have won playoff games in two of the past six seasons.
"You have to play these games to win. You can't play to not lose," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who completed 18 of 29 passes for 259 yards and threw two second-half touchdown passes Saturday. "You have to go out there and you have to let everything go. You can't worry about the outcome.
"We're fighting for one big prize. You have to do the things that are going to get you to that point and that's by playing aggressive football, not having a conscience."
The Ravens' offense struggled for much of December, getting off to poor starts, failing to consistently run the ball or convert on third down and not getting a whole lot going down the field. The offense played so poorly for three quarters in the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns that it was booed by the home crowd throughout the game.
But on Saturday, after a three-and-out on the first drive, the Ravens scored points on six of their next seven full drives. The Ravens turned the ball over just once on a fluke fumble by Justin Forsett, who lost the ball when he ran into teammate Owen Daniels. While the running game gained only 49 yards on 25 carries, it keyed the Ravens' first scoring drive.
Flacco also took several shots down the field, hitting Steve Smith for a 40-yard reception and making deep throws to Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones that resulted in penalties on Pittsburgh.
"I thought Gary called a great game. He kept them off balance. We did a great job with pass protections, of neutralizing some of their pressures," Harbaugh said. "That was kind of the game plan. We wanted to come here and go after them. We didn't want to play scared, so to speak."
It was Flacco and the offensive line that mostly kept him clean that provided the confidence to the coaching staff to remain in attack mode. Flacco didn't turn the ball over for the sixth time in the past eight games.
He now has thrown 166 pass attempts in the playoffs since his last interception, the fourth-longest streak in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In his past five playoff games, Flacco has thrown 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
"The biggest thing is coming out and playing consistent football, being patient, taking what they give you. I think we as a group, I think I always do it," Flacco said. "These games against good teams, they come down to the wire. You're kind of forced to be aggressive in a lot of situations, and I think it just lends itself well to us."
Flacco said while preparing for the game, the Ravens practiced various fourth-down plays with the intention of "going for it anywhere on the field." The need arose just once, and they picked up a first down on a quarterback sneak by Flacco on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers' 49 with 12:32 to play. At the time, the Ravens led, 20-9, but instead of trying to pin Pittsburgh back, Harbaugh kept his offense on the field.
There were plenty of other instances of aggressiveness.
On their next drive after the fourth-down conversion, the Ravens had a third-and-1 on the Steelers' 34. There was just less than nine minutes to play, and the Ravens led by five points.
Instead of running the football, Flacco took a shot at the end zone, where Torrey Smith had gotten behind the Steelers' defense. Smith caught the ball but couldn't get his second foot inbounds, and the Ravens settled for Justin Tucker's 52-yard field goal.
"The call to throw it in the end zone was Gary's call," Harbaugh said. "It was a great call. We were a hair's breath away from putting the game away right there. "
The Ravens did ultimately put the game away the next time they touched the ball. Suggs' interception, in which he cradled the ball between his legs, gave the Ravens possession at the Steelers' 21.
Leading, 23-15, the Ravens needed just a field goal to make it a two-possession game right around the midpoint of the fourth quarter. The Ravens, however, went for the touchdown, and got it when, on the very next play, Flacco rolled out and hit reserve tight end Crockett GIllmore for a 21-yard score.
"You're never going to win a game by osmosis, by hoping to win," said Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith, who had five catches for 101 yards. "You're going to win it by being aggressive. That showed itself today, and we also have to make those plays when we're aggressive. It makes no sense to be aggressive when you're shooting yourself in the foot with a penalty or a dropped pass."
The Patriots, though, represent a far different challenge to the Ravens' aggressive philosophy than the Steelers. New England has arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, who have shut down some of the game's best receivers this season.
If recent postseason history is any indication, that won't dissuade Flacco and the Ravens from turning their offense loose.
"I feel like the playoffs, it really isn't for the timid," Osemele said. "I feel like that's because the speed of the game, it's just so much different, and there's not time to really even play conservatively.
"I feel like you always do have to be on the offensive."