BALTIMORE – They told anyone who would listen that this was a different team, that they had learned from past playoff failures, that they were “obsessed” with getting to the Super Bowl. Then, for the first 30 minutes of football Saturday on a frigid afternoon in Baltimore, they looked like the playoff Ravens of recent past.
Their offensive was confused and overwhelmed by the bombardment. Their potential MVP quarterback, Lamar Jackson, seemed frustrated. His special teams gave up a game-changing punt return touchdown. The Houston Texans could very well have been the Los Angeles Chargers of 2018, the Tennessee Titans of 2019, or the Buffalo Bills of 2020. It was the same movie, just a different antagonist.
But the biggest difference between these Ravens and previous versions was revealed behind closed doors in a “nervous” locker room. That’s where a fed-up Jackson, who his teammates say has matured and grown as Baltimore’s leading man, told the room that enough was enough. They weren’t going to fall like that.
“There’s something about him right now,” said Ravens wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who caught a 3-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. “It’s been on him all year, but right now there’s something really on him, and I’m with it. I’m with that.”
Call Agholor! @Crows take a 10-3 lead.
-NFL (@NFL) January 20, 2024
No one seemed to want to reveal what Jackson said at halftime with the score tied and the offense coming off three consecutive three-pointers. Some of the offensive linemen said it was nothing new. They were already well aware of Jackson’s passion for winning. But Jackson admitted that he was the one doing the talking at the center of halftime, which is not typical.
“A lot of cursing at halftime,” Jackson admitted.
The Ravens came out in the second half and drove the Texans off the field as the crowd of 71,018 went from anxious to jubilant. Dominating on offense and defense, the Ravens scored the final 24 points of the game to win 34-10, clinching a spot in the AFC championship game and solidifying M&T Bank Stadium as the venue on January 1. 28.
Lamar Jackson and Ravens escape the Texans in the second half
The Ravens will play the winner of Sunday night’s matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Bills. It will be the first time the Ravens will host an AFC Championship Game in team history and the first AFC title game in Baltimore since the Colts hosted the Raiders in January 1971.
“This is the first step,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team has not played for a conference title since winning Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 regular season. “The next step is in front of we”.
Harbaugh and some of his assistant coaches broke out the dance moves in the locker room after the game. It was a much different vibe than at halftime when Jackson turned up the pressure on the offense he was leading.
“I was (nervous),” Jackson said. “We had no other option: offense as a unit. We just weren’t scoring points. Well, we scored once. Our defense was playing with all its strength, but we didn’t respond. So we had to score at halftime. Like the coach said, ‘Get the ball out quick and let the defense play honestly,’ and that’s what we did.”
The coaches moved 😂😭💀 pic.twitter.com/LDDU9OftJx
– Baltimore Ravens (@Cuervos) January 21, 2024
In the second half, Jackson led three consecutive scoring drives, sandwiching a 15-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Likely between 15 and 8 yard touchdown runs for the quarterback. He was classic Jackson, making quick decisions, forcing the Texans to honor every part of Baltimore’s offensive arsenal, including his legs, and not forcing anything.
After his final touchdown, which gave the Ravens a three-touchdown lead with 6:20 left, Jackson ran into the tunnel. Fortunately, the show was over for the Texans, who allowed 229 rushing yards, 134 of which came in the second half.
Jackson became the first player in NFL history to have 100+ passing yards, 100+ rushing yards, a 100+ passer rating, and two passing touchdowns and two rushing scores in the same game.
“You have to give Lamar credit,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He made a lot of great plays. That is why he is the MVP.”
The Ravens’ first touchdown drive of the second half covered 55 yards in six plays and ended just under three minutes long. The second was a 12-play, 93-yard drive that finished in just over seven minutes. The third consisted of 11 plays, traveling 78 yards and consuming another seven minutes.
It was the Ravens at their best in 2023, with the offense controlling the ball and the line of scrimmage while giving Jackson countless options in the run and pass games. It was Mike Macdonald’s defense that didn’t give Texans rookie quarterback CJ Stroud anything easy.
Stroud, who destroyed the vaunted Cleveland Browns defense in the wild-card round, completed just 19 of 33 passes for 175 yards and no touchdowns. Houston had only 213 total yards and did not score any offensive points (Steven Sims’ 67-yard punt return was their only touchdown) after a field goal late in the first quarter. In two games against the Ravens this season, the Texans, with a quarterback likely to win Offensive Rookie of the Year and an offensive coordinator (Bobby Slowik) who is getting head coaching interviews, did not score an offensive touchdown.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Baltimore’s defensive effort was that it dominated the game without recording a single sack or steal.
“The defense was as good as it could be,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh and the Ravens coaching staff badly needed this win. Wasting another seed would have been brutal. Another loss in the divisional round as a heavy home favorite would also have resurrected all the past criticism about Harbaugh and the team’s recent playoff performances, such as the home loss to the Titans after the 2019 regular season. Harbaugh’s decision sitting some key players, like Jackson, in Week 18 with the team already having secured the top spot would have been questioned ad nauseum.
The Ravens were a little bad to start the game, at least offensively. But in the second half, they looked like a fresher and more prepared team. The halftime adjustments made by offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who watched his quarterback get blitzed again and again in the first half, were a big difference in the game.
Monken was much more aggressive on early downs early in the third quarter. He gave Jackson more options in the quick passing game and worried less about creating long plays. In the second half, Baltimore had the answer to Houston’s attack. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jackson went 13 of 18 against an extra running back for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The 75 percent blitz rate he faced was the highest of his career.
“They had success in the first half attacking us, with light, zero blitzes,” Jackson said. “They were doing their own thing, but we watched a lot of film. We were prepared; We just made small mistakes protecting the attack and getting the ball out in time. In the second half I felt like we were doing what we were supposed to do.”
Jackson also badly needed this victory. The standout story coming into the game was about how he had a 1-3 playoff record as a starter and seven turnovers in those four games. Can you imagine the reaction if Stroud had surpassed Jackson? It certainly would have made all the talk in recent weeks about Jackson’s growth and his “locked” mantra sound like hot air.
Instead, the opposite happened. Jackson told his story at halftime and challenged his teammates.
“I listen to the message, not the words,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. “I know what you’re trying to say. He is a competitive player, he wears his heart on his sleeve. He will say many things. I know what he’s trying to get at. We know what he wants and that is simply to win.”
Jackson then took over in the second half. In one of the decisive plays of the game, the Ravens had a fourth-and-1 at the Texans’ 49. They were up 17-10 with just over two minutes left in the third quarter. Jackson faked a handoff to Gus Edwards and ran a bootleg for 14 yards. Five plays later, he connected with Likely for the touchdown.
Lamar hit them with the point 😳
-NFL (@NFL) January 20, 2024
“His personality: he’s the Baltimore Ravens,” Agholor said. “He leads the right way: by example. But also, when he has to speak, he says it. And then he executed. …He doesn’t just talk, talk, talk and go out and do nothing. He says what needs to be said and then goes out and executes.”
When it was over, Jackson was ready to move on. And the Ravens, as they often do, were following his lead.
“We have to finish,” Jackson said. “It’s still the playoffs. We’re not at the dance yet, but I’m looking forward to next week, to be honest with you. “I’m not even thinking about the Super Bowl until we take care of business.”
(Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)