BALTIMORE — The Ravens had to win.
Another early playoff exit would have been unbearable, which is what made the finish to the second quarter in Saturday night’s divisional-round tilt with Houston so unnerving. No matter what anyone has said publicly or tried to believe, that 2019 playoff loss to Tennessee had tormented this organization, and the circumstances were all too familiar with Baltimore again holding the NFL’s best record and the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
It had certainly haunted Lamar Jackson, whose outstanding play in the regular season not carrying over to the playoffs was mystifying to even his biggest supporters and easy ammunition for his harshest critics. To say Jackson wasn’t pleased after the offense went three-and-out three straight times to close the first half was an understatement, especially as Steven Sims’ 67-yard punt return for a touchdown tied the game at 10 in the midst of the offensive drought.
Head coach John Harbaugh described the halftime locker room as “a little edgy” with Jackson doing much of the talking. The frustration stemmed from the Texans blitz, which had generated three sacks and multiple pressures to limit Baltimore to 23 net passing yards in the first half. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback had thrown a 3-yard touchdown to Nelson Agholor earlier in the second quarter, but — excluding the meaningless Week 18 game — you’d probably have to go back to the second half of the Week 5 loss at Pittsburgh to find offensive struggles resembling their four three-and-outs in the first half.
“We didn’t really have success. Our defense was playing lights out, but we’re not responding,” said Jackson, who acknowledged “a lot of cursing” in his message. “We just had to dial in at halftime. Like coach [Harbaugh] said, get the ball out quick and let the defense play us honest, and that’s what we did.”
A Devin Duvernay 37-yard kick return to open the second half gave the Ravens a jolt, and Jackson immediately went to work with the quick passing game — his average time to throw was more than a second faster in the second half — to neutralize the Houston blitz and eventually open up the ground game. His 15-yard touchdown run on the sixth play from scrimmage in the third quarter signaled the rout was on and the expected NFL MVP of the regular season looked like the same generational talent in January, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for two scores as well as 100 yards on the night.
All that angst at intermission felt silly an hour later as the Ravens scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to win 34-10 and advance to the AFC championship game for the first time in 11 years. Much like San Francisco and Miami last month, the upstart Texans simply weren’t capable of hanging with Baltimore for 60 minutes after a competitive first half as Jackson went 9-for-11 for 100 yards through the air and the Ravens ran for 134 yards in the final two quarters.
Mike Macdonald’s elite defense deserves equal praise for allowing only three points and keeping rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and Houston out of the red zone despite not registering a single sack or takeaway, but the night belonged to Jackson, whose four touchdowns matched the total over his first four career postseason games. And while he was quick to say the mission isn’t complete, the 27-year-old became the first quarterback since the legendary Johnny Unitas 53 years ago to lead a Baltimore team to a home AFC title game.
“It’s meaningful. Now we have to get to work and go win,” said Harbaugh, who was 8 when the Colts beat Oakland at Memorial Stadium to advance to Super Bowl V. “That’s the challenge.”
Awaiting the winner of the divisional-round showdown between Kansas City and Buffalo, the Ravens know they’ll be facing a more seasoned and formidable contender than the young Texans in next week’s title game. And though Baltimore will — and should — be favored against either team, Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen will have something to say for anyone perceiving Baltimore’s Super Bowl quest as inevitable.
But putting the torment of that Titans loss to rest was significant for Jackson and everyone in the organization who’s carried that disappointment for the last four years. Asked about hearing all the criticism about his postseason track record prior to Saturday, Jackson smiled before noting this is “a different team” that just needs to “stay locked in” for next week.
“He ain’t done yet. He has a lot left to prove. He wants to prove that,” Pro Bowl inside linebacker Patrick Queen said. “That’s why he’s so hungry. That’s why you can see it in his eyes. You can see it in the way he talks, the way he’s acting right now.
“He has a lot to prove, and he’s going to prove that.”
Jackson took his biggest step yet on Saturday night.