OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — For the Baltimore Ravens, the term “balanced attack” usually means an equal distribution of tackles among everyone on the defense not named Ray Lewis.
The Ravens’ strength has long been its ability to stop the opposition from scoring. The offense, for the most part, is usually responsible for protecting the ball and cashing in turnovers.
This unsymmetrical arrangement will almost certainly have to change Sunday against the high-powered New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.
Baltimore beat the Houston Texans 20-13 last Sunday by virtue of another solid performance from its defense. Or, judging by the numbers, in spite of its offense.
The Ravens totaled 227 yards — 109 after halftime. They went three-and-out eight times, averaged 2.8 yards per rush and scored only three points over the final 46 minutes.
That kind of production won’t be enough in the Ravens’ bid to get to the Super Bowl.
“I think it would be safe to say we are going to have to score points to win this game,” said Ravens rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith, who had one catch for 9 yards against the Texans.
“We have one of the top defenses in the league, and we stand by our defense and believe in our defense. They are pretty much the rock of our team,” Smith said. “We know we are going to have to help them out a lot. We have to try and take care of the ball. We can’t have any three-and-outs. We have to keep their offense off the field, keep our defense rested and score points.”
The Ravens’ two touchdowns against Houston came on drives of 2 and 34 yards following turnovers. Running back Ray Rice, who totaled 2,068 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns during the regular season, rushed for 60 yards on 21 carries and had four receptions for 20 yards. He did not score.
Yes, the Texans own the second-ranked defense in the NFL and played that way. Not only did they bottle up Rice, but they sacked Joe Flacco five times. That can’t happen if Baltimore intends to make its fourth straight playoff run end with an appearance in the Super Bowl.
“You always want to play a little better, and the film is not going to lie,” Rice said. “We know we have some things to work on. They had a great pass rush and they got inside of us a little bit, but you have to take what’s there and there wasn’t a lot there. We’ll get it corrected.”
Baltimore converted only four of 16 third-down plays against Houston. In one telling series in the third quarter, Rice gained one yard on a third-and-goal from the 2 and was stuffed on a fourth-down run.
“Third down is going to be really important for both sides — getting off the field and extending drives,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Time of possession for us is going to be important in this game.”
Of the four remaining teams vying for the NFL championship, the Ravens own the lone sputtering offense. Tom Brady threw six touchdown passes for the Patriots in a 45-10 rout of Denver; Eli Manning chewed up Green Bay’s defense for the New York Giants in a 37-20 victory and Alex Smith showed his playoff mettle by rallying the San Francisco 49ers over New Orleans 36-32.
The Ravens, on the other hand, managed only 11 first downs. But New England coach Bill Belichick sees the potential in Baltimore’s attack.
“They have a great complement of receivers and tight ends and backs. They get the ball to everybody,” Belichick said. “The receivers are productive, their tight ends are very productive and of course, Rice is their leading receiver. You take one guy away and they can beat you with ... a lot of different guys.”
Flacco threw two touchdown passes against Houston and had a solid 97.1 quarterback rating. He’s also 44-20 during the regular season and the only starting quarterback in NFL history to reach the playoffs in each of his first four years.
“A quarterback has to do what his team needs him to do to win, and Joe has done that,” Belichick said.
Flacco is 5-3 in the postseason. To become 6-3, he’s going to have to get the Ravens into the end zone.
“As an offense, an offensive guy, I would think so,” Flacco said. “At the same time, we have a good defense. The way (the Patriots) have played all year, the way they’ve played in the past, they put points on the board. So I think as an offense, you have to go in there and put points on the board, too.”
Flacco will be facing the league’s 31st-ranked pass defense, so there may be an opportunity for him to succeed. He might even be put in a position to win the game with a last-minute drive, as he did at Pittsburgh in November.
In spite of all his accomplishments, Flacco still absorbs a surprising amount of criticism. A victory over New England might change all that.
“Like I told Joe, no one wins games by themselves,” said Lewis, the only remaining Ravens player from the 2000 Super Bowl champions. “We are in this as a family; we are in this as a team. Nothing on the outside matters. What matters is what we think on the inside of this building and what we feel about him and the confidence we have in him. Everything else, you can throw out the window. Joe has come in and led us to the playoffs in each of the last four years. If that was anybody else, they would be praising him. Joe Flacco has done a heck of a job getting us into the position to win.”
The only thing missing is that elusive final step — winning it all.