BALTIMORE — They told anyone who would listen that this was a different team, that they had learned from past playoff failures, that they were “locked in” on making a Super Bowl. Then, over the first 30 minutes of football Saturday on a frigid late afternoon in Baltimore, they looked like the playoff Ravens of the recent past.
Their offense was confused and overwhelmed by the blitz. Their presumptive MVP quarterback, Lamar Jackson, looked frustrated. Their special teams gave up a game-changing punt return touchdown. The Houston Texans might as well have been the 2018 Los Angeles Chargers, 2019 Tennessee Titans or 2020 Buffalo Bills. It was the same movie, just a different antagonist.
But the biggest difference between these Ravens and previous versions revealed itself behind closed doors in an “edgy” locker room. That’s where a fed-up Jackson, who teammates say has matured and grown as Baltimore’s leading man, told the room enough was enough. They weren’t going down like this.
“There’s something in him right now,” said Ravens wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who caught a 3-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. “It’s been in him all year, but there’s something really in him right now, and I’m with it. I’m with it.”
Lamar to Agholor! @Ravens take a 10-3 lead.
— NFL (@NFL) January 20, 2024
Nobody seemed to want to reveal what Jackson said at halftime with the score tied and the offense coming off three consecutive three-and-outs. A few of the offensive linemen said it wasn’t anything new. They were already acutely aware of Jackson’s passion for winning. But Jackson conceded he was the one who did the crux of the halftime talking, which isn’t typical.
“A lot of cursing at halftime,” Jackson acknowledged.
The Ravens came out in the second half and ran the Texans off the field as a capacity crowd of 71,018 morphed from antsy to jubilant. Dominating on offense and defense, the Ravens reeled off the game’s final 24 points to win 34-10, securing a spot in the AFC championship and solidifying M&T Bank Stadium as the site on Jan. 28.
Lamar Jackson, Ravens run away from Texans in second half
The Ravens will play the winner of Sunday night’s matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and 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 hasn’t played for a conference title since it won Super Bowl XLVII following the 2012 regular season. “The next step is in front of us.”
Harbaugh and some of his assistant coaches broke out the dance moves in the locker room after the game. It was a far different vibe than it was at halftime when Jackson turned up the heat on the offense he leads.
“I was (edgy),” Jackson said. “We had no other choice — the offense as a unit. We just weren’t putting points up. Well, we scored once. Our defense was playing lights out, but we’re not responding. So, we just had to dial in at halftime. Like Coach said, ‘Get the ball out quick and let the defense play us honest,’ and that’s what we did.”
The coaches got moves 😂😭💀 pic.twitter.com/LDDU9OftJx
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) 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 by the quarterback. It was vintage 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 last touchdown, which gave the Ravens a three-touchdown lead with 6:20 to play, Jackson ran straight up the tunnel. The show was mercifully over for the Texans, who gave up 229 rushing yards, 134 of which came in the second half.
Jackson became the first player in NFL history to have 100-plus passing yards, 100-plus rushing yards, a 100-plus passer rating and two passing touchdowns and two rushing scores in the same game.
“Credit to Lamar,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He made a ton of great plays. That’s why he’s the MVP.”
The Ravens’ first second-half touchdown drive covered 55 yards on six plays and lasted just under three minutes. The second was a 12-play, 93-yard drive that lasted just over seven minutes. The third consisted of 11 plays, traveling 78 yards and eating up another seven minutes.
It was the Ravens at their 2023 best, with the offense controlling the ball and the line of scrimmage while giving Jackson myriad options in the run and pass games. It was Mike Macdonald’s defense not giving Texans rookie phenom quarterback C.J. Stroud anything easy.
Stroud, who took apart the Cleveland Browns’ vaunted defense in the wild-card round, completed just 19 of 33 passes for 175 yards and no touchdowns. Houston had just 213 total yards and didn’t score any offensive points — Steven Sims’ 67-yard punt return was its only touchdown — after a late first-quarter field goal. In two games against the Ravens this season, the Texans, with a quarterback who will likely win Offensive Rookie of the Year and an offensive coordinator (Bobby Slowik) who is garnering head-coaching interviews, didn’t score an offensive touchdown.
Perhaps, the most impressive thing about Baltimore’s defensive effort was it dominated the game without getting a single takeaway or sack.
“The defense was as good as it could be,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh and the Ravens coaching staff badly needed this win. Squandering another top seed would have been brutal. Another divisional-round defeat as a significant home favorite would also have resuscitated all of the past criticism about Harbaugh and the team’s recent performances in the playoffs, like the home loss to the Titans after the 2019 regular season. Harbaugh’s decision to sit some key players, like Jackson, in Week 18 with the team already having clinched the top seed would have been second-guessed ad nauseam.
The Ravens were a little off to start the game, at least offensively. But in the second half, they looked like the fresher and more primed team. Halftime adjustments by offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who watched his quarterback get blitzed over and over again in the first half, were a major difference in the game.
Monken was much more aggressive on early downs at the start of the third quarter. He gave Jackson more options in the quick passing game and worried less about creating chunk plays. In the second half, Baltimore had the answer to Houston’s blitz. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jackson was 13-of-18 against an extra rusher for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The 75 percent blitz rate he faced was a career high.
“They were having success in the first half with blitzing us, soft blitz and zero,” Jackson said. “They were doing their thing, but we watched a lot of film. We were prepared; we just made little mistakes protecting the blitz and getting the ball out on time. By the second half, I felt like we were doing what we were supposed to do.”
Jackson badly needed this win, too. The prominent storyline entering the game was about how he had a 1-3 playoff record as a starter and seven turnovers in those four games. Could you imagine the reaction had Jackson been outplayed by Stroud? It certainly would have made all the talk over the past few weeks about Jackson’s growth and his “locked in” mantra sound like lip service.
Instead, the opposite happened. Jackson said his piece at halftime and challenged his teammates.
“I hear the message, not the words,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. “I know what he’s trying to say. He’s a competitive player, wears his heart on his sleeve. He’ll say a lot of stuff. I know what he’s trying to get at. We know what he wants, and that’s just to win.”
Then, Jackson took over in the second half. On one of the decisive plays of the game, the Ravens had a fourth-and-1 at the Texans’ 49. They led 17-10 with just over two minutes remaining 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 ’em with the full stop 😳
— NFL (@NFL) January 20, 2024
“His personality — he is the Baltimore Ravens,” Agholor said. “He leads the right way: by example. But also, when it’s time to talk, it’s said. And then he executes. … He doesn’t just talk, talk, talk and go out there and not do nothing. He says what needs to be said and then goes out there and executes.”
When it was over, Jackson was already ready to move on. And the Ravens, as they are apt to do, were following his lead.
“We have to finish,” Jackson said. “It’s still the playoffs. We’re not in 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 handle business.”
(Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)