Ravens round up Texans

HOUSTON -- It was a brutal, relentless display: physically dominant, instinctive and, most of all, merciless. It mirrored the trademark bullying performance from the Baltimore Ravens.

Yet, this belt-whipping wasn't inflicted entirely through the tradition of a punishing defense wearing out another opponent into submission.

A capitalistic offense made certain that the Houston Texans were absolutely finished off Sunday, demonstrating a killer instinct in the Ravens' 41-13 victory at Reliant Stadium as they scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win their fourth consecutive game. This is the first time the Ravens have scored 40 points on the road since 1999.

"The offense is starting to develop that attitude of, 'We're not waiting on the defense,'" said wide receiver Derrick Mason, who gutted out a dislocated left shoulder to return in the second half. "We understand that the defense is going to do what they need to do, but we can't wait on them. We've got to go out there and start scoring points."

And with the Pittsburgh Steelers' loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens (6-3) are now tied for first place in the AFC North. The Steelers hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their overtime win over Baltimore earlier this season.

The Ravens lassoed the Texans into a cowboy-sized knot of frustration, scoring a franchise-record of at least 27 points for the fourth game in a row and winning four games in a row for the first time in two seasons. With their sixth win, they have already eclipsed last year's total.

It's also the first time since the 2001 season that Baltimore has won three consecutive road games.

Between the defense intercepting Texans quarterback Sage Rosenfels four times, including two interceptions from star middle linebacker Ray Lewis, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco calmly delivering two touchdown passes and running back Willis McGahee grinding out a season-high 112 rushing yards and two touchdowns, the Ravens had plenty of ammunition to leave the Texans riddled with bullets.

"You cut them once, and they keep fighting," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You've got to keep cutting and keep their head under water."

Whether it was Yamon Figurs' blistering speed on a 43-yard bomb from Flacco to open the scoring, McGahee breaking tackles or, suddenly, tight end Todd Heap emerging again in the passing game with two touchdown catches, the Ravens had a convincing rebuttal to every argument.

Flacco was impressive again, completing 15 of 23 passes for 185 yards and no interceptions for a 118.9 quarterback rating.

"We can still grow immensely," Flacco said. "We're getting better and better each week. Our main goal is to improve each week and hit our stride right when it counts the most."

The towering first-round draft pick hasn't been intercepted in his past 111 passes, upgrading his ability to locate receivers and avoid sacks.

"He doesn't get flustered," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Flacco. "Momentum swings don't affect him too much. He comes out and plays the next series and takes care of business. That's the kind of person he is."

Flacco was precise on his throw to Figurs, a return specialist who hadn't caught a touchdown since he was a Kansas State senior playing against the Texas Longhorns.

Figurs ran right under a looping spiral as the Ravens struck first on the scoreboard.

"Joe put the ball right on the money," Figurs said. "I saw the safety coming, but I was so wide open. It felt like it took forever to get there."

When the Texans threatened to tie the score after marching to the Ravens' 11-yard line, Rosenfels' pass intended for tight end Owen Daniels was intercepted in the end zone by leaping defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, all 6-foot-4, 345 pounds of him.

"It was real big, I was lucky to be in the right spot at the right time," said Ngata, who also cleared a path for McGahee as a blocking tight end on his first touchdown run and pressured Rosenfels into a Lewis interception. "They were driving the ball, and it killed their momentum."

Suggs' bull-rushed offensive tackle Duane Brown so badly in the second quarter that the rookie tackled him to keep him from decking Rosenfels, and the obvious holding penalty resulted in a safety for the Ravens.

Later in the half, rookie kicker Steve Hauschka powered in a 54-yard field goal in relief of veteran Matt Stover. Baltimore led 12-6 at halftime.

The Ravens rebounded from Rosenfels' 60-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Walter on a crossing pattern in the third quarter that closed the gap to 19-13 after Stover badly missed a 50-yard try that looked well out of his range.

Flacco responded immediately by leading a nine-play, 78-yard scoring drive that he capped with a one-yard touchdown pass to Heap, the former Pro Bowl selection's first score since last season.

Heap sold that he was blocking, but stumbled when he got tangled up in the backfield. He rose to his feet quickly as Flacco retreated to buy him time and got him the football.

"I don't think the play was quite like we wanted it to turn out, but we got it done and Joe stayed with me and we got to score," Heap said. "It was more just trying to get through the line of scrimmage. I don't care how it works, as long as it works, and it was good."

Added Flacco: "He was really my only guy on the routes. I saw him slow down and was like, 'Oh, no.' I started backing up, trusting that he was going to come up. Then, he was wide open so it was pretty easy."

Following that touchdown and a two-point conversion pass to Mason, the Ravens were up 27-13 early in the fourth quarter.

The Ravens converted all four red-zone opportunities, generated 333 yards of total offense and controlled the time of possession for 36 minutes and 17 seconds as they rushed for 162 yards on 40 carries.

"At halftime, we talked about stepping up the intensity and being more physical," Heap said. "It's good to be able to turn it on like that."

Defensively, the Ravens contained Texans star wide receiver Andre Johnson to seven catches, 66 yards and no scores. Texans rookie running back Steve Slaton's long touchdown run was nullified due to a holding penalty, and he finished with seven yards on four carries.

"All championship defenses bend, but don't break," Lewis said. "That's the staple of this team right now. We're rough."

After Lewis picked off Rosenfels again, backup quarterback Troy Smith got into the scoring act. The former Heisman Trophy winner lobbed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Heap to boost the lead to a commanding 34-13.

"We talk all the time about building an identity," Smith said. "Hopefully, this game is proof of that."

In his first game back from neck surgery, cornerback Samari Rolle intercepted Rosenfels. That turnover set up McGahee's final score, his first multiple-touchdown game since joining the Ravens last year.

Originally scheduled for Sept. 14 and postponed because of the onslaught of Hurricane Ike, Sunday was supposed to be the Ravens' bye. Instead, they put in some roadwork.

"They took our bye week, so we had to come out there and show 'em that they can throw obstacles at us and we'll just try to overcome them," said McGahee, who closed out the game with a four-yard touchdown run "We're trying to be in the playoffs this year."


Quarterback: A-minus

Joe Flacco did more than manage the game. The big rookie mastered the Texans' defense, completing 15 of 23 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 118.9 quarterback rating. Flacco's game seems to develop nuances each week. Backup quarterback Troy Smith got into the act with a touchdown pass to close the game out.

Running back: B-plus

Willis McGahee grinded out 112 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in a gritty performance one week after watching rookie Ray Rice steal the show against the Cleveland Browns. McGahee broke more tackles and doled out more punishment than usual, executing some sharp cuts.

Receiver: B

Despite a dislocated shoulder that would have sidelined most players, Derrick Mason gutted it out to catch three passes for 41 yards. Tight end Todd Heap surfaced from the missing persons' report to catch two touchdowns on five receptions for 58 yards. Yamon Figurs caught a 43-yard bomb for his first touchdown catch since he was a Kansas State senior and he scored twice against the Texas Longhorns.

Offensive line: B-minus

Joe Flacco was sacked three times, but never by star defensive end Mario Williams. They opened some gaping holes for the running game to produce 162 yards and two scores on 40 carries. Penalties lowered their grade.

Defensive line: A-minus

Besides being a destructive interior force, Haloti Ngata showed his athleticism and versatility by intercepting a pass in the red zone, blocking for a touchdown run at tight end, pressuring Sage Rosenfels into an interception and nearly blocking a punt. The Texans only rushed for 75 yards as rookie Steve Slaton was shut down for seven yards on four carries.

Linebacker: B-plus

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis intercepted two of Sage Rosenfels' four gifts, and recorded eight tackles. Terrell Suggs' pressure was enough that he was taken down to force a safety on a holding penalty. Bart Scott was sound in coverage.

Secondary: C-plus

Contained star wide receiver Andre Johnson for seven catches for 66 yards and no scores. He averages roughly 140 yards at Reliant Stadium. They did their job so well they basically forgot about Kevin Walter (four catches, 85 yards) on a 60-yard touchdown on a crossing pattern. Samari Rolle intercepted a pass in his first game back from neck surgery.

Special teams: B

Rookie long-distance kicker Steve Hauschka booted a 54-yard field goal. Sam Koch averaged 50 yards per punt. The kick coverage improved markedly from last week's disaster, shutting down dangerous return specialist Jacoby Jones. Yamon Figurs provided solid field position on kickoff returns.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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