Ravens likely need improved offense to beat Pats
The Baltimore Ravens have transformed winning ugly into an art form, embracing victories without style points and riding their rugged approach all the way to the AFC championship game.
That held true again during their rough-around-the-edges 20-13 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday in an AFC divisional playoff game. The Ravens (13-4) readily acknowledge that they'll need to play much better, particularly on offense, to topple the top-seeded New England Patriots (14-3) during Sunday's AFC title game at Gillette Stadium.
Considering that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be firing spirals into the air to lead a prolific offense, the Ravens' offense will need to try to keep pace to some extent. "I think it would be safe to say we are going to have to score points to win this game," rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith said Monday. "We have one of the top defenses in the league, and we stand by our defense and believe in our defense. They are pretty much the rock of our team. "For us, we know we are going to have to help them out a lot. We have to try and take care of the ball. We can't have three-and-outs. We have to keep their offense off the field, keep our defense rested and score points."
The Ravens managed to win and advance to the next round of the postseason primarily because they forced four turnovers, including three interceptions of rookie quarterback T.J. Yates. Baltimore didn't commit a single turnover and wasn't even penalized once.
However, the Ravens' offense failed to score for nearly 45 minutes after building a lead of two touchdowns in the first quarter.
"You try to correct things but you can't really chase backward too much this time of year," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Everything is looking ahead. We're going to try to play the next game and not trying to replay the last game. "But third down is going to be really important on both sides, getting off the field and extending drives. Time of possession for us is going to be important in this game. It's going to be a big red-zone game on both sides, really." Quarterback Joe Flacco completed 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Texans.
However, Flacco was under heavy duress as rookie defensive end J.J. Watt and rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed combined to sack him five times. Utilizing stunts and speed, Watt and Reed burst past offensive tackle Michael Oher and offensive guard Marshal Yanda. "They ran some blitz pressure and they did a good job with that," Harbaugh said. "Basically, they bring the two outside ‘backers off the edge and then five-man pressure and then play man coverage. They ran some games on the right side, especially between Watt and Reed, that were really effective.
"Those two guys are explosive guys. They beat us on that one time, and then they beat us a couple of times one-on-one. So, we need to do a better job blocking that stuff."
Undefeated in seven games against playoff teams this season with all four losses coming on the road, the Ravens' offense managed to generate only 11 first downs Sunday and was outgained, 315-227.
Running back Ray Rice was limited to 60 yards, averaging only 2.9 yards per carry against the Texans' second-ranked defense. "That's a good football team over there," Rice said. "And I'm never going to apologize for a win."
The Ravens struggled in short-yardage situations, getting stopped in the third quarter on a fourth-and-goal opportunity. Rice was stuffed for no gain at the one-yard line one play after being held to a yard.
Scoring two touchdowns by capitalizing on two turnovers, the Ravens pulled out a win by holding onto a four-point lead for dear life for the majority of the game.
Rice averaged only 2.9 yards per carry. "You always want to play a little better and the film is not going to lie," Rice said. "We know we have some things to work on. They had a great pass rush and they got inside of us a little bit, but you have to take what's there and there wasn't a lot there.
"Our guys did a great job of blocking them. We'll get it corrected. It's just another week that we have to get it corrected. We always like to say we strive for perfection. We realize nobody is perfect, but we are trying to get there."
The Ravens won despite scoring only three points in the final three quarters and going three-and-out eight times on 15 offensive possessions with the longest drive being 59 yards. The Ravens converted only 4 of 16 third downs and averaged only 3.6 yards per offensive play. "It's winning by any means necessary," free safety Ed Reed said. "We feel like we're the big brother of the team, but our offense will get going. We knew that. We knew they would make plays when they needed to." The Patriots ended the regular season ranked second in total offense, second in passing offense. They're riding a nine-game winning streak and averaging 37.1 points per contest during that run. And Brady threw six touchdown passes during the Patriots' 45-10 rout of the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. He passed for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns during the regular season. The Ravens finished 15th in total offense, 10th in rushing and 19th in passing. Asked if he thinks the offense would need to score more points to win this game, Flacco replied, "I would think so. At the same time, we have a good defense. The way they've played all year, the way they've played in the past, they put points on the board. So I think as an offense, you have to go in there and put points on the board, too." The Ravens have won before at New England, trouncing the Patriots 33-14 in the playoffs two years ago, as Rice rushed for 159 yards. That included an 83-yard burst up the middle for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. "We've gone out there and played before," Flacco said. "They are one of the teams, just like us, that's tough to beat at home. 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. So we're going to have to make sure we prepare well all week and bring our A game up there." Derided by critics despite going 49-23 since being drafted in the first round, Flacco has passed for 3,610 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this year. Harbaugh defended Flacco's latest performance, which wasn't different from many other of his games during the regular season. It lacked flash, but Flacco won another game and has now won five of eight career playoff games. "That's a winning performance," Harbaugh said. "I told him I thought he played very, very well. In a lot of situations in this game when he was under duress, he handled himself really well. There were plenty of things he'd like to have back and could have done better, and he'd be the first to tell you that. "So, you just try to get better, you try to improve and you try to play winning football, no matter what position you play. And that's what we value around here." Never one to let a chance for humor pass him by, Terrell Suggs contrasted Brady versus Flacco heading into a week where those comparisons are sure to follow. "Tom Brady, he is good-looking," Suggs said. "Joe has got the Fu Manchu. They're a good-looking team. We are not a good-looking team. We're just going to play football, and it's going to be a fun game."
Ravens notebook: Ed Reed'a ankle passes X-ray test
OWINGS MILLS — Hobbled and carried off the field at the end of the Baltimore Ravens' 20-13 AFC divisional round playoff win over the Houston Texans, free safety Ed Reed should be fine this week. In the final minutes, Reed twisted his left ankle after a rough landing that followed his fourth pass deflection of the game.
One day later, though, the ankle wasn't bothering Reed much and X-rays confirmed no major damage was done as the Ravens prepare for Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots.
"Ed looks like he's all right with the ankle," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "Everything's come up OK, as far as the X-rays." Reed downplayed the severity of the injury Sunday. In obvious pain after he fell on his shoulder, which has bothered him along with a nerve impingement in his neck this season, Reed intercepted his eighth pass all-time in the playoffs. That's more than any current NFL player. Reed, 33, has had issues tackling late in the season, but held up Sunday. "My shoulder actually held up, I was just hitting guys," Reed said. "Better tackling game than I had in the last couple ones, been getting a little criticism on that, but it comes with the territory."
Reed intercepted three passes during the regular season, but chalked that up to quarterbacks avoiding his territory.
"The picks haven't been coming because they don't throw my way as much," Reed said. "I got my hand on two or three before that and didn't bring them home. It hasn't been like they've been trying in my zone. You've got to watch the football game and understand what's going on.
"I missed a couple tackles leading up to this game. It happens. It's part of the game. I'm also getting old. At one point, I won't be up here. You'll be interviewing another safety here in Baltimore."
Inside linebackers Jameel McClain (sprained medial collateral ligament) and Brendon Ayanbadejo (strained right quadriceps) made it through the game without incident.
"Brendon and Jameel, they fought through theirs," Harbaugh said. "They were right to the last minute decisions, and they came out of it OK." Asked about offensive tackle Michael Oher, who had his knee wrapped up after the game, and defensive tackle Arthur Jones, who suffered minor leg injury, Harbaugh said, "Nothing serious."
When Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski was in the NFL draft two years ago, the Ravens ultimately decided to shy away from him due to his back problems.
They didn't doubt his talent, though. And New England ultimately selected Gronkowski in the second round with the 42nd overall selection. Gronkowski had a stellar season this year, catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.
"We were very interested in Rob," Harbaugh said. "There were medical concerns, but we loved him, loved him as a player, loved him as a guy. We were pretty certain that he was going to be a good player, and he's exceeded our expectations."
CONFIDENCE BOOST: Wide receiver Lee Evans had a quiet regular season with the Ravens, catching only four passes after being acquired via a trade from the Buffalo Bills.
Finally healthy and beginning to build timing with quarterback Joe Flacco, Evans turned in a highlight-reel catch against the Texans. He snagged a 30-yard pass from Flacco with his left hand, completing an acrobatic reception. "It was good to make a play in a big game and give our offensive some momentum when we needed it," said Evans, who caught four passes for 74 yards during the regular season. "I tried to be aggressive and go get the ball." A former first-round draft pick accustomed to registering big numbers for the Bills, Evans said the play boosts his confidence.
"Absolutely, I think the main thing is you need to continue to let the defense know you're still a threat out there," Evans said. "So, they have to account for you and we can be ad dynamic offense as we can be."
The Ravens traded a fourth-round draft pick to Buffalo to acquire Evans, but he hurt his left ankle during the first game of the season. "We would have liked for Lee to be involved with us, obviously, all the way through," Harbaugh said. "It's something that we'd like to see as we go forward here, trying to get that done. We're not going to stop trying to get that done. "Seeing that play get made, you get excited. You say, ‘Hey you know what? He's certainly capable of making those plays.' We've seen him make them his whole career. I think it brought a smile to everybody's face. We'll be looking forward to more of that."
UNDERDOGS: With the top-seeded New England Patriots installed as a seven-point favorite, the Ravens aren't being predicted by most to win this game.
The Ravens defeated New England 33-14 during a playoff game two years ago.
However, they have won only one of seven games against the Patriots in the series."We like being the underdog," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We're used to it. I think we handle it better. Psychologically, I don't really know why, but I think we do. Should we be? I don't know. Obviously, it's their place. They're the No. 1 seed, they have earned it. And they are one of the top offenses in the league. They deserve to be the top team. I am an underdog myself, so I love it."
The possibility looms of another Harbaugh Bowl.
If the Ravens defeat the Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers beat the New York Giants, then John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh would square off in the Super Bowl. The Ravens beat the 49ers earlier this season on Thanksgiving. What will their parents do Sunday?
Jack Harbaugh indicated in a radio interview that he and his wife, Jackie, might watch the games at home rather than travel to the AFC or NFC championship games.
"It's pretty neat," Harbaugh said. "I'm proud of him, and he's proud of what we're doing. And our parents are pretty fired-up. They've got a tough decision. They're at home, they'd have a place to stay. So, they will probably go out there, I guess."
When it was suggested that the parents could each attend one of their sons' games, Harbaugh said, "Maybe that's what they are going to do. We'll have to see."
NO PENALTIES: Years removed from being one of the more penalized teams in the game, the Ravens didn't draw a single flag against the Texans. That's unprecedented in franchise history.
"I think our guys understand how to direct their passion really well into football, and that's what they've done a great job of throughout the season," Harbaugh said. "It's critically important. To me, it's emotional smarts. "It's playing smart football. It's understanding when to be aggressive and when not to be. Basically, it's between the whistles, and the rest of it doesn't matter."
Harbaugh said he didn't notice anything on the game video that was an obvious penalty. "Not really, he said. "There might be something that's close, but nothing really blatantly callable. There were a couple of things we might send it; there are a couple of things they might send in, but I thought it was a well-officiated and a well-played game on both sides."
‘GREATEST': When he was the Philadelphia Eagles' secondary coach after coaching special teams for most of his career, Harbaugh was recommended to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti after Brian Billick was fired.
Harbaugh has a ton of admiration for what the Annapolis native has done in New England.
"I just respect Bill Belichick as a coach and as a man," Harbaugh said. "I think he's the greatest coach in our league right now, and that's proven. And that's why you get so excited to have an opportunity to play against a guy as a coach. What he stands for as a coach and the way he puts his team together and all that, you admire it. "And then he's always treated me well over the years. He's always been at the top of the profession, and when somebody in that position treats a younger guy well, you certainly appreciate that."
QUICK HITS: Harbaugh praised the Ravens' fans. "I just wanted to comment on the amazing connection with the fans that has happened," he said. "Obviously, it's been a long-term relationship. Our fans were right in there fighting with the team the whole way. When you go out in the community, I went to basketball practice on Friday night for my daughter's team, and our families are in the community all the time, schools and things, the incredible excitement that people have for this football team is just so awe-inspiring. It is really cool. We feel it, and we appreciate it and love being swept up in it."
Kicker Billy Cundiff has made three field goals in a row since returning from a left calf injury, booting kicks from 48 and 44 yards against the Texans. "The field goals were big," Harbaugh said. "They were tough kicks, windy conditions, and they weren't that short either. Billy came up big. He did a nice job for us. Points, obviously, were a premium, so that was good."
Cornerback Chris Carr was a healthy scratch Sunday. He'll likely be needed, though, this week against the Patriots. "Normally, Chris is up," Harbaugh said. "Obviously, Chris is a big part of what we're doing, especially when we play teams that throw the ball a lot. So that could be a big factor this week. We put an extra defensive lineman up this week because of the type of offense we were playing. Special teams was a part of that decision, too."
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