The time has finally arrived.
From the first day of training camp, the Ravens talked about beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning the AFC North, and securing a home playoff game and a first-round bye. And while the No.1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs may have eluded them, the Ravens have nearly earned everything they wanted.
Now, it’s time to take advantage of the opportunity as the Ravens play their first home playoff game in five years and seek their first playoff victory at M&T Bank Stadium since Dec. 31, 2000. The building was then known as PSINet Stadium, and Baltimore welcomed the Denver Broncos to town for the first playoff game in franchise history as the Ravens began a run that culminated with a victory in Super Bowl XXXV.
Eleven years later, the Ravens are the only NFL team to reach the playoffs in each of the last four seasons under head coach John Harbaugh. They’re the only team to win one playoff game in each of the last three full postseasons.
But in most minds — including those belonging to the Ravens — that’s not good enough anymore.
A Super Bowl run is what everyone in the Charm City wants, and the Ravens begin that journey on Sunday by hosting the Houston Texans, a team they beat 29-14 in Week 6 to improve to 5-0 in the all-time series. Houston is a similar team to the Ravens, possessing an excellent defense and a preference to run the ball first, especially after the season-ending injury to veteran quarterback Matt Schaub. After prevailing in their first playoff game in franchise history last week, the Texans are looking for their first road victory and a trip to the conference championship.
Here is what to expect when the Ravens welcome the AFC South champions to town on Sunday …
1. Arian Foster will not gain more than 70 rushing yards, which will put the ball in T.J. Yates’ hands more than the Texans would like. Even with Schaub, Houston was a run-first attack — ranking second in the league in rush offense — but that’s become even truer with the rookie third-string quarterback at the helm. The Texans run the zone-blocking scheme as well as any team in the league, but the Baltimore defense handled it in October, holding Foster to just 49 yards on 15 carries. In order for Yates to have a chance, the Texans need third-and-short situations, meaning Foster will need to gain nice yardage on first and second down. With a week to rest, the Ravens’ defensive line is refreshed and more likely to control the line of scrimmage as it did in Week 6. The key to beating zone blocking is maintaining gap control and respecting the cutback lanes. The Ravens see it every day in practice, making them very familiar with it. Yates will need to make plays in the passing game to wide receiver Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels, who will be limited after breaking his hand against Cincinnati last Saturday. In obvious passing situations, Terrell Suggs and company will pin their ears back to get after Yates, forcing sacks and mistakes in the process.
2. As was the case in October, Ray Rice will have difficulty finding running room early but will see more daylight as the game progresses. The key to limiting the Baltimore offense is no secret, as it begins and ends with stopping Rice. However, it hasn’t prevented him from rushing for 642 yards over the final five games of the regular season. Houston will provide much more of a challenge as the defensive line of J.J. Watt, Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith does an excellent job of controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing inside linebackers Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans to make tackles. The Texans held Rice to just 16 yards on eight carries in the first half of the Ravens’ Week 6 win, but Baltimore was able to wear down the Houston defense in the second half as the Pro Bowl running back finished with 101 yards on 23 carries. With the Houston offense likely struggling to stay on the field and left guard Ben Grubbs available this time around against the Texans, the Ravens will once again take control in the second half. Rice may not finish with 100 yards, but his rushing output will increase as the game goes on to allow the Ravens to maintain control of the game. Unlike Foster, 70 or 80 yards rushing for Rice will be more than enough for Baltimore to control the tempo of the game.