The Baltimore Ravens have won at least one playoff game in each of the last four seasons, but so far, the only thing that's been given to them is an empty feeling as a franchise and a hunger for more. They've been bounced out of the postseason by the Pittsburgh Steelers, their primary AFC North rivals, in two of the last four seasons, and after finally winning the division title and getting a crucial home game and week off to start the 2011 playoffs, things were looking up for a team that has all the talent in the world and less to show for it.
They would face a Houston Texans team that was playing in its first postseason, and who would travel to M&T Bank Stadium after demolishing the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-10. Everything that led the Texans this far — a power running game, a dominant offensive line, a great defense, and the surprising play of rookie quarterback T.J. Yates — were in effect at times on Sunday afternoon, but it wasn't quite enough, and the Ravens came out on top, 20-13.
In a rematch of Baltimore's Week 6 win over Houston, the Ravens advanced to the AFC championship game for the first time since 2008 and the third time in franchise history. The other occasion was near the end of the 2000 season, and that win led to the Ravens' only Super Bowl title.
Linebacker Ray Lewis, who has been there for all the team's trials and tribulations over the last 16 years, felt that this team could be the one to revisit past glories.
"I take my hat off to my team," Lewis said after the game. "All the ups and downs every team goes through during a season -- and for us to be here, back with the opportunity to go back to the Super Bowl, you can't ask for anything else. We played a very, very tough team today, and we know what type of battle it was going to be.
"For us to come out the way we did; for them to rally in the first half the way they did … we came out in the second half and pretty much pitched a shootout. It's just the little things — you watch this great young back in Arian Foster, and he makes these cuts and makes these catches — you sit there and watch him play when you're trying to play against him. You've really got to take your hat off to our team."
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Foster was the dominant offensive weapon for the Texans, and quite possibly the offensive star of the game — he rushed 27 times for 132 yards and a touchdown as the Texans kept things close enough to avoid having to put the burden on Yates' hands too often. Lewis and Foster exchanged autographed game jerseys right after the game -- one of the ultimate signs of respect between opponents.
Yates threw three interceptions, but Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco wasn't exactly at his best at all times against Houston's opportunistic defense — he was bailed out by his receivers on more than one occasion, he made some questionable reads, and he was far too logey in the pocket to contend with the furious pass rush of the Texans' front line.
Still, as Ravens defensive lineman Terrell Suggs said after the game, any win is a pretty one when you get this far. "I'd call it a Ravens-style win," he said when asked if he was OK with the idea of winning ugly. "I always say that there's the right way to do things, the wrong way to do things, and then there's just the Ravens way to do things. It wasn't pretty, but hey — we're not really a pretty team."
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The Ravens will now face a "pretty" team in the AFC championship game — the New England Patriots, who sailed past the Denver Broncos to the tune of a 45-10 win on Saturday. Quarterback Tom Brady, playing about as well as he's ever done, threw six touchdown passes in the game's first three quarters before calling off the dogs. Still, the Ravens have no reason to fear the Pats — they knocked them out of the postseason in 2009 with a very convincing 33-14 win.
"He's a great quarterback -- when all is said and done, there's him, Johnny U, and Peyton in that discussion," Suggs said of Brady. "So, we've got a full week to prepare for him, and I guess we just get to wait and see. He's definitely one of my favorites, but let's not take away from this win right now. I'll talk to y'all next week about the Patriots."
Flacco, who was also asked about Brady, believes as Lewis does that this is a Baltimore team whose time may have finally come. "We've gone up there and played before, and we've gone on the road and played a championship game before since I've been here. We didn't win that game, but we have won in New England. They're one of the teams, just like us, that is very hard to beat at home. They play very well up there, so we know how tough it is to play up there and play in a place like that. We're going to make sure that we prepare well all week, and bring our A-game up there."
That's their only shot, but the Ravens have been convincing enough so far. Now, it's time to marshal all their forces and try to get back over the tallest part of the mountain.