It’s kind of funny, sitting here a day later. If the Ravens had been able to score from about 0.25 yards out on two tries yesterday, my score prediction of 27-13 would have likely been right on. For the record, I’ve been picking scores on this site for five full seasons now (plus eight playoff games), and that would have been the first time I ever hit the nail on the head.
Watching it unfold yesterday though, was pretty damn agonizing. Even if they’d managed to put the Texans away earlier, and win by two touchdowns, it wasn’t nearly the kind of dominating performance that many of us had hoped for or expected. Give Houston a ton of credit – that is a team that will be a force in the AFC for years to come, especially if Matt Schaub can stay healthy and even if they don’t end up re-signing Mario Williams. (Giant Cowboy) hats off to them.
Back to the goalline stand that very well could have decided the game the other way in the end…
It looked like Houston was about to pull to within 17-16 with six minutes to go in the third quarter. Instead, kicker Neil Rackers hit the crossbar from 50 yards out (thank you breezy day!), and the Ravens took over from their own 40 yard line. The heretofore invisible man, Lee Evans, made the first postseason catch of his career, and it looked to be a huge one, setting the Ravens up at the Houston 9-yard line with a chance to go up by at least a full single touchdown and hopefully more. Ray Rice ran to the five, and then fumbled to the two (aside – what’s up with Rice, a dude who fumbles about as regularly as Joe Flacco shaves his upper lip lately, being unable to get through a divisional playoff game without putting the ball on the turf? He did it in Indy in 09, in Pittsburgh last year, and now in B’More yesterday. He got lucky in that the ball rolled right to Ben Grubbs, but it’s a bit unsettling that he gets slippery fingers in the biggest games) and the Ravens were set up with 3rd-and-goal from there.
A great stand by the Texans’ defense prevented the Ravens from getting in, and as they had eschewed the field goal try, the score would remain 17-13.
We can debate the decision to go for it on 4th-and-goal ad nauseum – personally, I would have been more comfortable going up 20-13 at the time, putting a full touchdown’s distance between the teams on the scoreboard. While I can fully understand John Harbaugh’s challenging his team to go get half a yard and win the damn playoff game NOW, my thinking also takes into account the Ravens’ shoddy resume when it comes to short-yardage blocking, not only yesterday, but all season long.
At this point, Ravens fans are more comfortable when the team faces a 3rd-and-4 or 5 than a third and very short. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but anybody who has watched all 17 games so far this year can tell you that the Ravens can’t be counted on to push the pile for a yard or two when they need to most. Not only did this bugaboo pop up in the goalline stand yesterday, but it came about again at the end of the game. After a booth review had moved Ray Rice’s 2nd-and-1 run back half a yard with 1:44 remaining, and it became impossible for the team to just kneel and run out the clock, they again failed to pick up less than a yard when it could have won them the game, as Vonta Leach got stuffed in the backfield for a loss. That inability gave the Texans a sliver of hope that they shouldn’t have had, and while the Ravens were able to hold on in the end, it may have cost them as Ed Reed appeared to be injured on the game’s final play. If the offense can pick up a damn yard, Reed is sitting comfortably on the bench celebrating at that point, instead of flying through the air to bail his team out once again.
Of course, the seeds were planted for that entire sequence on the Ravens’ previous possession.
After a wonderful drive (really their first -and only – of the day) that moved the ball from their own 29 to inside the Texans’ 30, and took over four minutes off the clock, the Ravens were in position to not only potentially kick that field goal that they had decided against earlier to go up 20-13, but to continue to bleed the clock and at least force Houston to burn precious time outs. Gary Kubiak tipped his hand that he was going to do exactly that, stopping the clock after a 5-yard Rice run put the ball at the Texans’ 26 with 3:04 to go.
Enter Cam Cameron.
Two incomplete passes – and two free stoppages of the clock later – Billy Cundiff connected from 44 yards to cap off the scoring for the day. However, there were still nearly three minutes remaining, and the Texans still had two timeouts, instead of the none they likely would have had the Ravens simply ran the ball on second and third down.
All of this added up to make the game’s final minutes much more stressful than they really needed to be. Thanks for that, Cam.
Speaking of Rice, he was genuinely overshadowed by his counterpart, Arian Foster. While Rice managed a paltry 60 yards on 21 carries and 20 yards on 4 receptions, Foster became the first opponent to ever rush for over 100 yards against the Ravens in a playoff game, and he nearly did it in the first half. The Texans’ running back finished the day with 132 yards on 27 carries, and added 22 yards on five receptions. The Ravens’ defensive line and linebackers, despite being rested, were pushed around by Houston’s offensive line all day. Not only in the running game, but in the passing game as well, as rookie quarterback T.J. Yates was not sacked a single time all afternoon.
Terrell Suggs did not Ball So Hard yesterday. In fact, aside from a stop of Foster on third down following the goal line stand that forced the Texans to punt from their end zone, he was relatively silent.
Yates, for his part, took what the Ravens gave him, but was also the beneficiary of some uncharacteristic slippery fingers from Ed Reed. Reed – though he got the key interception when the team needed him most, late in the fourth quarter – dropped two in the first half that likely would have helped put the game away much, much earlier. Ray Lewis also had a potential pick bounce off his shoulder. So while the Ravens were able to pick Yates off three times (two by Lardarius Webb), they very easily could have had five or six picks.
Joe Flacco, on the other hand, didn’t have nearly the luxurious pocket that Yates enjoyed. He was sacked five times, and was under constant duress. When he did have time to throw in the first half, he was betrayed by his receivers, as Anquan Boldin, Ed Dickson, and Torrey Smith all dropped catchable balls that, again, probably would have helped put the game away much earlier. Webb seemed to be the only guy in purple who could catch in the first half.
The Ravens were gifted some great field position by turnovers early, and took advantage. Their two touchdown “drives” of the day were 2 and 34 yards, respectively. After putting up 17 points in the first quarter, they took a nap until the fourth, and allowed Houston to hang around.
Going that long without scoring won’t fly next week in New England. After a 14/27, 176 yard day, the Flacco bashers are sure to be out in full force again this week, blatantly disregarding the aforementioned offensive line and receiving woes.
Whatever. Just like last week, my advice for Ravens fans is to stress out on Sunday – Saturday if you really can’t wait. Spend the time until then enjoying this, and soaking in the Festivus atmosphere. There are only three other teams still alive at this point. The Ravens are in their second AFC Championship game in four seasons.
Festivus Maximus is one win away.
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