In the highly-anticipated rematch from the season opener, history repeated itself as the No. 1 seeded Ravens pulled away in the second half and won by double digits. They are now one win away from earning a chance to compete for their third Lombardi trophy in franchise history and will host the winner of Sunday night’s epic clash between the Buffalo Bills and defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Their defense absolutely dominated from start to finish, holding a red-hot offense to just three points and 213 yards of total offense. Meanwhile, the offense rebounded from an up-and-down first half and took off in the second, highlighted by yet another awe-inspiring passing performance from their MVP quarterback.
Below are some of the top takeaways from the Ravens’ victory in the divisional round.
Championship caliber defense flexed led the way
As impressive as the Ravens’ offense was in their ninth 30-plus-point outing of the season, most of their production came after halftime while the defense was the most consistent and dominant unit throughout the entire game. Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald’s unit held an offense that just dropped 31 points on the vaunted Cleveland Browns defense in the Wildcard round just a field goal as the Texans’ only touchdown came via a 67-yard punt return.
Roquan Smith on C.J. Stroud throwing 3 TDs last week against Cleveland and being held out of the end zone by the Ravens: "We're not the Browns, we're the Baltimore Ravens at the end of the day. So whoever they play before us really don't matter."— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) January 21, 2024
“The defense was just as good as it could be,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s a good offense over there. That’s a good quarterback. C.J. Stroud deserves a lot of credit. They’re very well coached. Their offensive line is really good and tough. It’s tough to get to the quarterback. Then, he gets out and starts rolling around [and] starts making plays downfield. I thought our guys chased him, and I thought we plastered [their receivers] downfield. Our coverage was just outstanding. We covered as long as we needed to so many times. He still made some really good throws.
Even though the Ravens didn’t sack Stroud once after recording five in their first matchup in Week 1 and finishing the regular season with a league-leading 60, they pressured Texans’ star rookie quarterback relentlessly and hit him five times. They only allowed 38 rushing yards, their second-lowest total of the season, and just 2.7 yards per carry.
Defenders from all three levels played aggressively downhill from the first snap to the last, rallied to make tackles, delivered several big hits, and forced numerous throwaways and errant passes that resulted in clutch stops. They only totaled three tackles for loss, didn’t force a single turnover, and only forced five punts but were able to impose their will all the same with their physicality on every play from the first to the last.
man, good on Geno Stone for sniffing this out, then beating his blocker to turn what could have gone for 20+ yards into a very complicated loss of 5 pic.twitter.com/csY07Jd7Fg— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 20, 2024
“That’s how we’re supposed to come out. That’s how you’re supposed to play the game,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen. “We don’t shy away from that kind of stuff. There was a lot of jawing back and forth. Some people probably thought we shouldn’t have been playing like that in the game. That’s just what we do. We like that kind of stuff.”
Lamar Jackson dazzles again with another MVP performance
It had been 20 days since the three-time Pro Bowl and two-time First-Team All-Pro quarterback last played a competitive snap of football heading into this game. Not only did he not show any signs of rust, but the well-rested signal-caller produced the best playoff performance of this already illustrious career.
In his previous four playoff games, he had not thrown a touchdown prior to the fourth quarter and had his first before the second quarter was halfway over. He unleashed the entirety of his electrifying dual-threat skill set on the ascending Texans defense coming off its best game of the year against the Browns and finished with 252 yards of total offense and four total touchdowns by himself.
Jackson threw and ran for scores of 15 yards with second-year tight end Isaiah Likely on the receiving end of one, ran for another of eight yards, and threw his first on a three-yarder to wide receiver Nelson Agholor. He outrushed the entire Texans offense by 62 yards and finished as the team leader with 100 on 11 carries between scrambles and designed runs.
EIGHT THE GREAT❗— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 20, 2024
Tune in on ESPN/ABC! pic.twitter.com/JjaVabFmBk
This was just the latest in what has been a season of sensational performances by Jackson, who is a virtual lock to receive his second career league MVP honors in two weeks. He silenced his critics who questioned his ability to pass from the pocket or under duress by dicing up the Texans’ defense for several big-time throws down the field and at the intermediate level.
“I thought Lamar was going to play great, but he’s played great all year,” Harbaugh said. “Just now, it’s more important than ever. He’s been locked in from Day 1. That’s his term, and we’ve all ran with it. I think he’s directed this whole thing.
Running game can carry offense to glory
In the first matchup between these two teams back in Week 1, the Texans held the Ravens to just 110 rushing yards, which would end up being tied for their third-lowest single-game total of the regular season. On Saturday, they nearly had that total by halftime with 95 net rushing yards and by the end of the night, the home team finished with their third 200-plus-yard game on the ground of the season with 229.
Jackson led the way with 100 on the dot but all three of their running backs recorded over 20 rushing yards as well. The position group was led by fifth-year veteran Justice Hill’s 66 yards on 13 carries for 5.1 yards per carry followed by Gus Edwards with 40 yards on 10 carries for four yards a carry. Four-time Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook got all eight of his carries in the second half for 23 yards, most of which came on his first that he ripped off for a big gain of 19.
There were times earlier in the game when the Ravens could possibly taken over sooner had they run the ball more but in the end, they still finished with nearly double the rushing attempts as passing attempts (42-22). Both of the potential opponents that they could face next week ranked in the bottom 10 in terms of rushing yards per attempt with the Bills allowing the third-most at 4.6 and the Chiefs allowing the fourth-most at 4.5.
Despite how impressive their expanded and explosive passing attack with upgraded weapons under first-year Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken has been this season, the Ravens continue to prove that they are an elite rushing team capable of steamrolling one of the stingiest run defenses in the league on their way to a dominating victory.
Monken’s second-half adjustments were amazing
Macdonald wasn’t the only Ravens’ play caller and designer that was in his bag on Saturday when it came to setting up his players to have tremendous success. After struggling mightily to handle the blitzes that the Texans were dialing up in the first half, Monken was sensational with his play selection after halftime when it came to both accounting for and making them pay for bringing additional pressure.
Coach Harbaugh on the second-half adjustments: pic.twitter.com/1cJ9Ms2WtE— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 21, 2024
When Jackson was sacked on back-to-back plays on the offense’s last drive of the second quarter, it felt as if the air was beginning to leave the building a little bit and worry was starting to set in for some fans. However, it only took the first-year quarterback and coordinator combo one drive to show that they had found their answers and made the proper adjustments. After a 37-yard kickoff return by Devin Duvernay to open the third quarter, Jackson marched the offense 55 yards in just six plays for the first of four straight scoring drives including three straight that finished in the end zone.
According to Next Gen Stats, Jackson faced a career-high blitz rate of 75 percent and finished 13-of-18 for 120 passing yards and both of his passing touchdowns. In the second half, he got the ball out of his hands more than a second faster (2.25 down from 3.51).
Lamar Jackson faced a career-high 75.0% blitz rate, completing 13 of 18 passes against the blitz for 120 yards & 2 TD.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 21, 2024
Jackson got rid of the ball more than a second quicker vs the blitz in the 2nd half (2.25 seconds) compared to the first half (3.51).#HOUvsBAL | #RavensFlock pic.twitter.com/j49zz4jjEr
“I think we just did a better job getting the ball out on time,” Harbaugh said. “I think Todd called a different game. It wasn’t so much hold the ball and try to push the ball downfield, which Lamar did a good job. Once Lamar was able to sit back there [in the pocket] and just pick [the defense] apart and get the ball out quick, he just did a great job with that and then took control of the game.”
Monken dialed plays where Jackson had hot routes over the middle and check downs or swing routes to running backs out of the backfield and in the flat. He is up for a couple of vacant head coaching jobs as well and certainly boasted his case for why an opposing team should hire him with what he was able to do after halftime at such a highly efficient level.
"It means a lot, for your OC to trust you to put the team in a good situation." pic.twitter.com/KN1ZPCDk64— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 21, 2024
Homefield advantage played a significant factor
The home fans that flooded M&T Bank Stadium had a profound impact on this game to the benefit of the Ravens on both sides of the ball and the detriment of the Texans’ offense all game long. Their collection of raised decibels was roaring throughout the game and was responsible for causing multiple false starts and even a delay-of-game penalty.
THE BANK IS ROCKING!!!— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 20, 2024
TUNE IN ON ESPN/ABC. pic.twitter.com/0MWlJOb4Wj
“They were amazing,” Harbaugh said. “Six false start penalties. I thought our fans were incredible. It was deafening out there so credit to our fans first of all
The Ravens challenged their fans to be loud and proud so that home-field advantage could turn into a competitive advantage and the Flock faithful rose to the occasion and answered the call. They made it hard for Houston linemen to hear the cadence and hyped the defense between and during plays. Several players attested to how palpable the intensity and energy they provided helped fuel them and hope they will come through again next when they host the first conference title game in franchise history and just the second ever in the history of Charm City.
“I love this city. This team, we love this city,” running back Justice Hill said. “We just want to be able to provide the excitement for the city. They show up. No matter if it’s a road game or a home game, they’re going to always show up for us, and they’re going to cheer their butts off. So, we’re going to continue to win for those guys.”