BALTIMORE — They told anyone who would listen that this was a different team, that they had learned from past playoff failures, that they were “stuck” in making a Super Bowl. Then, during the first 30 minutes of football on Saturday on a frigid late afternoon in Baltimore, they looked like the playoff Ravens of recent times.
Their offensive was confused and overwhelmed by the blitz. Their presumptive MVP quarterback, Lamar Jackson, looked frustrated. Their special teams gave up Game-changing punt return touchdown. The Houston Texans might as well have been the 2018 Los Angeles Chargers, the 2019 Tennessee Titans, or the 2020 Buffalo Bills. It was the same movie, just a different antagonist.
But the biggest difference between these Ravens and previous versions was revealed behind closed doors in an “edgy” locker room. That’s where a fed-up Jackson, who teammates say has matured and grown into Baltimore’s star player, told the room he’d had enough. They wouldn’t have fallen like that.
“There’s something about 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 really something in him right now, and I’m all for it. “I agree.”
Lamar to Agholor! @Ravens take a 10-3 lead.
—NFL (@NFL) January 20, 2024
No one seemed to want to reveal what Jackson said at halftime with the score tied and the offense coming off three consecutive 3-pointers. Some of the offensive linemen said it was nothing new. They were already keenly aware of Jackson’s passion for winning. But Jackson admitted that he was the one talking about the crux of halftime, which is not typical.
“A lot of swearing at halftime,” Jackson acknowledged.
The Ravens came out in the second half and chased the Texans off the field as a crowd of 71,018 went from anxious to jubilant. Dominating on offense and defense, the Ravens scored the final 24 points of the game to win 34-10, securing a berth in the AFC Championship Game and solidifying M&T Bank Stadium as the venue on January 28.
Lamar Jackson, Ravens run away from Texans in second half
The Ravens will face the winner of Sunday night’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Bills. It will be the first time the Ravens 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 winning Super Bowl XLVII following the 2012 regular season. “The next step is ahead of we.”
Harbaugh and some of his assistant coaches broke out the dance moves in the locker room after the game. It was a much different atmosphere than at halftime, when Jackson raised the level of the attack he led.
“I was (nervous),” Jackson said. “We had no other choice: attack as a unit. We just weren’t getting the stitches. Well, we scored eleven. Our defense played lights out, but we didn’t respond. So, we just had to call each other at halftime. As the coach said, “Let the ball come out fast and let the defense play it fair,” and that’s what we did.
The coaches have moved 😂😭💀 pic.twitter.com/LDDU9OftJx
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 21, 2024
In the second half, Jackson led three consecutive scoring drives, posting a batting average of 15-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Likely between 15 and 8-yard touchdown runs to the quarterback. He was vintage Jackson, making quick decisions, forcing the Texans to honor every part of Baltimore’s offensive arsenal–including his legs–and not force anything.
After his final touchdown, which gave the Ravens a three-touchdown lead with 6:20 to play, Jackson ran straight down the tunnel. The show is thankfully 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+ passing yards, 100+ rushing yards, 100+ passer rating, and two passing touchdowns and two rushing scores in the same game.
“Credit to Lamar,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He did a lot of great shows. “That’s why he’s the MVP.”
The Ravens’ first touchdown of the second half covered 55 yards in 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 consuming another seven minutes.
It was the Ravens at their best in 2023, with the offense controlling the ball and the line of scrimmage while giving Jackson myriad options in the running and passing games. It was Mike Macdonald’s defense that gave Texans rookie quarterback CJ Stroud nothing easy.
Stroud, who cast aside 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 field goal late in the first quarter. In two games against the Ravens this season, the Texans, with a quarterback likely to win Offensive Rookie of the Year and an offensive coordinator (Bobby Slowik) who is fielding head coaching interviews, have not scored an offensive touchdown.
Perhaps, the most impressive thing about Baltimore’s defensive effort was that it dominated the game without suffering a single takeaway or sack.
“The defense was as good as it could be,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh and the Ravens coaching staff desperately needed this win. To squander another seed would have been brutal. Another divisional round loss as a home favorite would also resurrect all the past criticisms of Harbaugh and the team’s recent playoff performances, such as the home loss to the Titans following the 2019 regular season. Harbaugh’s decision to sit some key players, like Jackson, in Week 18 with the team that had already clinched the top seed, would be rethought ad nauseam.
The Ravens were a little off early in the game, at least offensively. But in the second half the team seemed fresher and more charged up. The halftime adjustments by offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who saw his quarterback get blitzed time and time again in the first half, were a big difference in the game.
Monken was much more aggressive on early downs early in the third quarter. He gave Jackson more options in the passing game and was less concerned with creating block 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% blitz rate he faced was a career high.
“They were having success in the first half with the blitz, the soft blitz and the zero,” Jackson said. “They were doing their own thing, but we watched a lot of film. We were prepared; we only made small mistakes protecting the blitz and getting the ball out on time. In the second half, I felt like we were doing what we were supposed to do.
Jackson also desperately needed this victory. The big storyline going into the game was his 1-3 playoff record as a starter and seven turnovers in those four games. Could you imagine the reaction if Jackson had been beaten by Stroud? It certainly would have made all the talk in recent weeks about Jackson’s growth and his “stuck” mantra sound like lip service.
Instead the opposite happened. Jackson spoke out 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, he wears his heart on his sleeve. He will say a lot of things. 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 got a fourth-and-1 at the Texans’ 49. They led 17-10 with just over two minutes left 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 them with the point 😳
—NFL (@NFL) January 20, 2024
“His personality: He’s the Baltimore Ravens,” Agholor said. “He leads in the right direction: by example. But also, when it’s time to talk, we say. And then he executes. …He doesn’t just talk, talk, talk and go out there and do nothing. “He Says what needs to be said and then goes out and does it.”
When it was all over, Jackson was ready to move on. And the Crows, as they are wont to do, were following his lead.
“We have to finish,” Jackson said. “We are still playoffs. We’re not in the game yet, but I’m looking forward to next week, to be honest with you. “I won’t even think about the Super Bowl until we take care of business.”
(Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)