BALTIMORE — If style points and offensive fireworks meant anything, the Baltimore Ravens wouldn't stand a chance of making it to the AFC championship.
Playing defense and protecting the football are what they do best, and that formula led to a 20-13 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday, putting Baltimore in the AFC title game against the New England Patriots.
"I always say there is a right way to do things, there is a wrong way to do things and there is just the Ravens' way of doing things," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It wasn't pretty but we're not really a pretty team. We got the W and now it's on to the AFC championship."
The Ravens (13-4) had almost as many punts (nine) as first downs (11) and scored only three points over the final 46 minutes. But Baltimore wasn't penalized once, didn't commit a turnover, intercepted rookie quarterback T.J. Yates three times and totaled four takeaways — two in the first quarter and two over the final eight minutes.
"If we didn't get any of those turnovers it would probably be a different game," Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said.
Baltimore visits New England next Sunday, with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis on Feb. 5.
The Patriots lead the series 6-1, but Baltimore's lone win came in the postseason.
"We don't play the game until next week," Suggs said. "I'm going to enjoy tonight."
Veteran defensive stars Ed Reed and Ray Lewis led a unit that yielded only one touchdown and came up with the big play when one was needed. Lewis had a team-high seven tackles and Reed sealed the victory with the Ravens' fourth takeaway, an interception near the goal line in the closing minutes.
"It's winning by any means necessary," Reed said. "That's what it's got to be."
The Ravens finished 9-0 at home, but this one was anything but easy. Baltimore led 17-3 after the first quarter, and interceptions by Lardarius Webb and Reed in the final 7½ minutes helped the advantage stand up.
Reed has eight interceptions in 10 playoff games, few bigger than the last one.
"You can't say enough about him," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "His big plays always seem to happen when you need one."
One week earlier, in the first playoff game in Texans history, Houston didn't commit a turnover in a 31-10 home rout of Cincinnati. Against Baltimore, the Texans couldn't hold onto the ball and quickly fell behind by two touchdowns.
Arian Foster ran for 132 yards, the first player ever to rush for 100 yards against the Ravens in the postseason. But Yates' three interceptions matched the total he had in six regular season games.
"I can't have the turnovers," Yates said. "If we don't turn the ball over like that, we have a chance to win. And we still had a chance to win. If I'd done a better job of protecting the football, I really think we'd have come out with the win today. We did a good job of moving the ball and we had some big plays, but you can't have that many picks."
Yates was the third starting quarterback used by Houston this season following injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. The Texans also lost wide receiver Andre Johnson for a spell and finished without sack specialist Mario Williams, who missed the last two-thirds of the season.
And still, the Texans got within a win of reaching the conference title game. After the game, team owner Bob McNair pulled aside coach Gary Kubiak and congratulated him.
"I told him how proud I was. ... To come out and play the way this team has played, I think it's just remarkable," McNair said. "Where would New England have been if (Tom) Brady wasn't playing, and if Wes Welker wasn't playing, and if their best defensive player wasn't playing? Go down the list of any of these teams and ask where they would be — and they wouldn't be in the playoffs. And this team was in the playoffs."
Down 17-13 at halftime, Houston twice held the Ravens without a first down in the third quarter before driving to the Baltimore 32. From there, Neil Rackers' 50-yard field goal try hit the crossbar and dropped into the end zone.
Baltimore then launched a drive in which seldom-used Lee Evans made a sensational one-handed catch for a 30-yard gain on third-and-5 from the Houston 39. On fourth-and-goal inside the 1, Ray Rice was stuffed by linebacker Tim Dobbins for no gain.
"That's a huge play," Houston defensive end J.J. Watt said. "Those are the type of plays that win playoffs games. Obviously, we wish it had gone the other way, but those are the type of plays that you remember."
The Texans couldn't move the ball, and the Ravens took the ensuing punt at the Houston 49. But three plays netted only 4 yards, and Sam Koch punted for the seventh time.
Minutes later, the Ravens went three and out for the fourth time in five second-half possessions. Fortunately for Baltimore, the defense compensated for the team's inability to add to its early lead.
"You have to do whatever you have to do to win a football game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Webb's second interception came with 7½ minutes left and the Ravens clinging to 17-13 advantage. Baltimore moved 45 yards to get a field goal by Billy Cundiff with 2:52 left.
Houston's Danieal Manning muffled the record crowd of 71,547 by taking the opening kickoff 60 yards to the Baltimore 41. Yates then completed two straight passes, and after the Ravens stuffed Foster on a third-and-1, Rackers kicked a 40-yard field goal.
Baltimore failed to get a first down on its first possession and had to punt. Jacoby Jones inexplicably attempted to field the bouncing ball at the 13-yard line, was immediately hit by Cary Williams and lost the ball, which was recovered by Baltimore rookie Jimmy Smith at the 2.
On third down, Joe Flacco threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kris Wilson — the tight end's first catch of the season.
After a Houston punt, Flacco completed a 21-yard pass to Anquan Boldin to set up a 48-yard field goal for a 10-3 lead.
Later in the first quarter, Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb stepped in front of Johnson for an interception at the Houston 35. Five plays later, Flacco tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Boldin in the right side of the end zone.
Yates then completed a pair of third-down passes in a 59-yard drive that ended with a field goal.
After Yates misfired on third down from the Baltimore 10, the rookie came off the field he was greeted by coach Gary Kubiak, who put a hand on the back of the quarterback's jersey while chatting.Comment on this story
Yates returned after a Baltimore punt to direct a 12-play, 86-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Foster, who accounted for 66 yards — including 54 on the ground.
Yates went 17 for 35 for 184 yards. Johnson had eight catches for 111 yards.
Notes: Baltimore improved to 6-0 against Houston, 2-0 this season. ... It was the Ravens' first home playoff win since 2000. ... Foster ran for 285 yards in the postseason, most by a player in his first two NFL playoff games. ... With the Ravens' home win, it's the first time since the NFL went to current playoff format in 1990 that the first seven games have been won by the home team.