BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens were perfect at home during the regular season and a .500 team on the road, which explains why they were so desperate to host at least one playoff game this month.
There are many theories as to why the Ravens are so much better at home. Familiarity with their surroundings? Check. The noise generated by their 71,000 supportive fans? Absolutely. The Sportexe synthetic turf at M&T Bank Stadium?
According to Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, whose team faces Baltimore on Sunday in the second round of the AFC playoffs, the Ravens will have the advantage of playing before a boisterous home crowd and on a field that's seemingly custom-made for Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice.
"First off, the noise obviously is tough. But they get even better on that turf," Kubiak said. "To me, they get even quicker coming off the edges and setting the edges and what they do, so that makes them even more difficult. I think Ray, as great a player as he is, he even gets a step better on that turf running the ball."
Kubiak speaks from experience. He watched Rice run for 101 yards in October, helping Baltimore roll to a 29-14 home win over the Texans.
But while Rice has proven to be effective at home or on the road, on grass or on artificial turf, the Ravens (12-4) are unquestionably more dominant in Baltimore. And that is one big reason why the Ravens believe this playoff run will be more successful than the three that preceded it.
Baltimore is the only NFL team to reach the playoffs in each of the last four seasons. In the previous three, however, the Ravens advanced as a wild-card and did not get to play at home. They won a game in each postseason appearance, but on every occasion the strain of repeatedly playing on the road proved too difficult to overcome.
Now, coming off a bye and playing in a venue where they went 8-0 during the regular season, the AFC North champions are confident that home-field advantage will be a big factor in their bid to defeat the Texans (11-6) and earn a berth in the conference title game.
"I don't care who you are, I don't care how good you are, it's hard to win on the road," Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "For us to work as hard as we did, get 12 wins, do the things we were supposed to do, and now get this home playoff game, we have positioned ourselves to be in the right place. Now we have to go finish it."
This will be the Ravens' first home playoff game since 2006 and the first for Rice, now in his fourth NFL season.
"I'd like to say, first off, it's a dream come true," Rice said. "I played every playoff game that there was since I've been a rookie, and they've all been on the road. It's very tough. Playing on the road is tough, no matter how you want to slice that. Trust me, it's a lot different than playing at home. So, a home playoff game definitely plays big on our behalf."
The Texans know the positives of playing at home after dismissing Cincinnati 31-10 last week at Reliant Stadium. On Sunday, rookie quarterback T.J. Yates must try to communicate with his offense while virtually every fan in the house is screaming 'Defense!' or something far more obscene.
"They were pretty loud when we were there earlier in the year, so one can only imagine it will be just as loud if not louder," Houston offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. "Our guys just have to focus on the snap count. We can't have any pre-snap penalties."
For the Texans to be successful on offense, two things have to happen: They can't jump offside and need to get their running game going so Yates isn't pressed into an obvious passing situation on third down.
"The crowd really gets behind them," offensive tackle Duane Brown said. "We played them in the regular season, and I'm sure it's going to be multiplied times 10, 20 now that it's the playoffs. We just have to stay poised, communicate as much as possible and be on the same page up front. And just stay on track and stay ahead of the chains. Once you get into those third-and-long situations, that's when they can pin their ears back and really try to get after you."
Beating the Ravens on the road in the postseason is not as difficult a task as it might seem. Baltimore lost in 2006 to the Indianapolis Colts and also fell at home against Tennessee in 2004. The only time the Ravens won a home playoff game was in 2000, when they launched their run to a Super Bowl victory with a 21-3 bashing of Denver.
Winning at home is a lot easier when you've got a host of talented players on the roster.
"Whether you play at home or on the road, you want to put a good team out there that plays good football," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's part of it. And the other part of it is our fans. Our fans are fantastic. It's very loud. Our fans are very passionate. You don't see very many opposing colors in our stadium, ever. That's something that we appreciate as an organization and as players and coaches."