BALTIMORE -- The ball tumbled toward the earth, to a spot nearly 70 yards from where Sam Koch, the Ravens punter, had put his foot to it. Jacoby Jones, the Texans returner, allowed it to hit the turf. Then he thought better of it and tried to catch it mid-carom. Almost immediately, he would wish that he hadn't.
Ravens defensive back Cary Williams hit Jones, jarring the ball loose, and then Jimmy Smith fell on it, just inside the Texans' 3-yard line. Baltimore's divisional playoff game against Houston was barely three and a half minutes old, and already its pivotal moment had occurred. Three plays later, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco would hit third-string tight end Kris Wilson for an easy one-yard touchdown, and the Ravens had a 7-3 lead, a lead they would not relinquish. They won 20-13, in the process earning a berth in next Sunday's AFC Championship game against the Patriots.
"It was huge," coach John Harbaugh said of Jones's miscue. "Ball on the 3-yard line!"
Still, of all the words Harbaugh uttered after the game, one stood out. "Humbled." Yes, the Ravens had won, but as Harbaugh said, "It wasn't perfect by any respect." The Ravens capitalized on Jones' gift and on those bestowed by T.J. Yates, the rookie Texans quarterback whose inexperience and fifth-round pedigree finally caught up to him. Yates threw three interceptions, two to cornerback Lardarius Webb, and released at least four other passes that might easily have ended up as such. "Everything leads back to the turnovers," said Texans center Chris Myers. "We grinded it out, but we just didn't get it done."
For much of the game, the Texans did more than grind it out. They physically dominated at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides -- against a team whose bailiwick for more than a decade now has been physically dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides. Of the 57 players who had attempted to run against the Ravens in the playoffs, never before had one of them totaled more than 91 rushing yards. Arian Foster, the Texans tailback, gashed the Ravens for 132 yards on 27 carries.
"Oh man, this guy -- he's a guy you would like to take into an alley with you," Ravens safety Ed Reed said of Foster, presumably because Foster could find you a safe path through it as adroitly as he did through the Ravens' front seven for much of the afternoon. Houston's defense held Ray Rice, the NFL's second-leading rusher, to just 60 yards on 21 attempts.
While the Texans on this day had six tackles for a loss to the Ravens' two, their superiority extended beyond the running game. Baltimore's pass rushers laid even a hand on Yates just twice, and produced no sacks. The Texans, meanwhile, hit Flacco six times and sacked him five -- all of those coming from a pair of rookies, defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Brooks Reed, who also combined for 20 tackles.
The Texans' rookies' youthful energy had a lot to do with it, but the blame for several of the sacks rested squarely on Flacco's pocket presence -- or, more properly, on his continuing lack thereof. Flacco had objected during the week leading to the game, perhaps good-naturedly, to his persistent maligning within the local media. "I'm sure if we win, I'll have nothing to do with why we won, not according to you guys," he said, leading some within his organization to privately suggest that he ought to spend less energy scanning newspapers and websites for his name printed in bold.
It is unfair to suggest that the mustachioed Flacco had
"We probably need to clean up some things on offense," said Flacco, who time and again held on to the ball too long and threw behind receivers, and who led his team to four third-down conversions in 16 chances. The most praiseful thing that Harbaugh said about his quarterback after the game was that he had not lost too many yards in the process of being sacked, and had managed not to lose a fumble.
Still, as Harbaugh said, "Win the game, no matter what." That, the Ravens did, despite being outmuscled by the Texans and outgained 315 yards to 227. Next week, though, they will face team that is better able to recover from its mistakes, of which it makes fewer, and a quarterback in Tom Brady who is as far from being T.J. Yates as a quarterback can be.
"A lot better than today, man," said Reed, minutes after he had iced the game thanks to another interception courtesy of Yates, when asked how the Ravens must play seven days from now. "A lot better than today."