BALTIMORE – This was never about the Houston Texans no matter the fight the Baltimore Ravens found themselves in late Sunday afternoon. A divisional round playoff game against a team you are supposed to beat does little when the real prize awaits far north, halfway between Boston and Providence.
Winning early playoff games is never enough when you do it year after year only to fall short of that first Sunday in February. The Ravens kicked and slugged and wrestled with an inspired, desperate Texans team at M&T Bank Stadium and none of that mattered. Outside of survival, there wasn't much need to dance. Nobody jumped in victory, shouted to the sky or cued thumping music. That can come at a later time, if a Super Bowl ever comes back.
But the Super Bowl is. And after years of dashed hopes and teases, Baltimore might have its best chance at the final weekend. It has both a defense that can still dominate and an offense resourceful enough to score when necessary. Sunday's victory was like more than a decade of Ravens wins: close, ugly and somewhat empty of any great promise.
"A Ravens-type victory," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was in on five tackles and had a pass deflection against the Texans.
And yet Ravens-type victories go only so far in the postseason. Ravens-type victories are usually followed by Ravens-type defeats, which are equally close, ugly and empty of any great promise that they won't happen again at the most heartbreaking time. Baltimore's players watched the Patriots blow out the Broncos on Saturday night. They saw New England's defense destroy the team that vanquished their biggest rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. They saw Tom Brady throw touchdowns at will. And this had to be unsettling at some level.
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They've been here before, on the doorstep of the Super Bowl only to find the mat yanked from beneath their feet at the most inopportune time. And the Patriots, whose defense made them appear vulnerable for most of the season, suddenly look like monsters again. Isn't that just Baltimore's luck?
Houston might be a bad test case to measure whether the Ravens can win the AFC title. Houston is actually a lot like Baltimore, with maybe a stronger defense and a less-reliable offense. The Texans muddled the game enough Sunday to keep the score close, unsettling the crowd. Oh, no, what would happen now?
In many ways the Texans outplayed the Ravens. They rolled up more rushing yards (131-87), more passing yards (184-140) and had more first downs (16-11) and sacks (5-0). They pressured Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco relentlessly, and they kept Baltimore from moving much of anywhere. If it wasn't for the inexperience of their own quarterback, rookie T.J. Yates, and some baffling throws into throngs of Ravens defenders, they probably would have won.
Is fighting through Houston enough to get by New England? The question dangled in the cold afternoon as Baltimore players trundled off the field and into the locker room.
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"Never easy is it?" offensive coordinator Cam Cameron mumbled before stepping into the locker room.
Of course New England made it look very easy Saturday night. One could sense as it happened that Patriots coach Bill Belichick has regained a sense of invulnerability and that New England is about to go on one of those marches through January like they've done in winters past. Does Baltimore have enough to stop one? Can it finally get through a postseason again?
"They have a quarterback who can make plays when he's under pressure," Texans linebacker Brian Cushing said after the game. "Even as he is being sacked he can still find a receiver. That's really good."
Yes, Flacco seems better despite a season of great rises and falls. But can hitting Anquan Boldin with a frantic pass in the face of a rush, or lobbing an occasional screen to Ray Rice be enough to beat the Patriots, who score fast and throw three touchdowns on the board in almost no time? Baltimore has won 19 of its last 20 games in its home stadium, but has looked average on the road. Getting past Houston at home doesn't do much to inspire hope it will stop New England in Foxborough and ultimately that's what this season and Sunday's playoff game was all about.
The Super Bowl Baltimore won in the winter of 2001 is never very far. A "2000 World Champions" sign hangs on the stands at midfield. Pictures from that season are everywhere around the team's practice facility. Some envelopes and letterhead from the team remind recipients that the Ravens were Super Bowl champions 11 seasons ago.
"The only reason you play this game, the only reason you play this game is for the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We have that opportunity right now. Whatever anybody wants to say about us, we are in position."
The Ravens undressed in their locker room for the last time this season. Coach John Harbaugh walked around the room, patting each player on the back, shaking their hands. Owner Steve Biscotti dragged deep on a cigar, turned his head to the ceiling and exhaled. Yes the Ravens won a tough playoff game Sunday. They forced a rookie quarterback into making silly mistakes. They survived. They endured.
Will any of that be enough against the Patriots?
Is it ever?
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