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Ravens, Texans bucking NFL's pass-happy trends

Ray Rice's versatility (1,364 rushing yards, 704 through the air) keys a Ravens attack that relies more on balance than Houston's.

Legendary Ohio State coach/mad man Woody Hayes is the one credited with popularizing the "three yards and a cloud of dust" offensive strategy, later employed by arch-rival Michigan under Bo Schembechler. It was a philosophy predicated on constantly running the ball, mostly between the tackles, with the goal of wearing down the opposition.

Essentially, it's the exact opposite of the trend sweeping through the NFL right now.

If you like points and high-flying passing attacks, this is the era of football for you. The four teams that attempted the most passes during the regular season -- Detroit, New Orleans, New England and Atlanta -- made the playoffs, while Green Bay led the league in scoring and the Giants came in ninth. Ball control has been eschewed by most teams, in favor of shotgun formations and quick-strike drives.

That's not what you're likely to see in Baltimore on Sunday, though. The Texans and Ravens fall somewhere between Woody Hayes' smash-mouth attack and the NFL's red-hot wide-open look.

Houston's been forced further toward the former this season, with its top two quarterbacks falling to injury.

"It’s the same package they ran early," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Houston's attack, post-Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. "T.J. Yates has kind of got his imprint on it, but he looks very similar to the other two guys running it. It’s a great system. I think he’s plugged in real well."

It may look similar, but it's operating differently. Last season, with Schaub healthy, the Texans attempted the fourth-most passes in the NFL. This year, they finished 30th in that category and tied Denver for the most rushing attempts at 34.1 per game.

Partially by choice and partially out of necessity, Houston has committed fully to its zone-blocking run game. The ground game paid off for the Texans in the opening round of the playoffs, as they ran 35 times for nearly 200 yards in a 31-10 win over Cincinnati.

That's the type of domination the Ravens try to have, though it hasn't always happened this season.

In the six games that Ray Rice went over 100 yards rushing, the Ravens went 6-0. But they also deserted their run game, at times, in favor of an aerial attack -- in four games Rice carried the ball 10 times or less, and Baltimore finished 1-3.

You can understand why Baltimore might want to take to the air, even if questions remain about Joe Flacco's ability to win a Super Bowl. Between rising rookie Torrey Smith, veterans Lee Evans and Anquan Boldin and talented tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, the Ravens have enough aerial weapons to win that way too.

“Obviously, Joe’s a big part of what we do. He’s our quarterback, he’s our leader. But we’ve got other guys, and we pride ourselves on being pretty balanced on offense,” (Ravens center Matt) Birk said. “So it’s certainly not all on him, and it’s not all on anybody. ... We don’t need anybody to be Superman out there. We just need everybody to do their jobs and take care of their business.”

You need look no further than Baltimore's 29-14 win over Houston in October to see the Ravens' offense running at full efficiency. That afternoon, Baltimore ran the ball 30 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns, passed 33 times for 305 yards and held the ball for more than half the game.

In an ideal world that is exactly what the Ravens want to do -- mingle the old-school elements of their offense with a new-school confidence in their passing attack. Rice finished with 1,364 yards rushing this season, but Baltimore also had five guys (including Rice, the team's leading receiver) haul in 40 or more catches.

It's a balanced approach with the reputation of a smash-mouth attack.

When Baltimore has run its offense like it wants to this season, the results have been fantastic. Whether or not the Ravens can do that Sunday, against a team similarly set in its way, will determine if it's Baltimore or Houston playing in the AFC title game.

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