- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens‘ defense isn’t as ferocious as it was once upon a time, when it bent everybody to its will. And the Joe Flacco-led offense, if we’re being honest, doesn’t exactly cause opponents to pace the halls at night. But the Ravens remain well-coached and hard to beat, and in this post-lockout season they’re one of the two best teams in the AFC.

They hammered that point home Sunday — but just barely — in a 20-13 win over the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium that moved them to the conference title game against the New England Patriots. The Houston club they defeated has been missing its No. 1 quarterback for the past eight games and forced to rely on anonymous rookie T.J. Yates, so it’s hard to say what else Ravens might have proved on this cold, windy, cloudless afternoon. But, hey, these are the playoffs, and they’re 60 minutes away from their second Super Bowl.

And as Ray Lewis, their Hall of Fame-bound middle linebacker said, “It’s the only reason you play this game — for an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl. There’s two teams left in the AFC, us and the Patriots. And next week that’s going to take care of itself.”

It will be the Ravens‘ second AFC title game in their four seasons under John Harbaugh, the third of Lewis‘ illustrious career, and Ray knows there can’t be many more — if any more. He’ll be 37 later this year, and safety/sidekick Ed Reed will turn 34; that makes them, combined, almost as aged as Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh’s venerable defensive coordinator (74).

“I missed a couple of tackles leading up to this game,” said Reed, another lock for Canton. “It happens. It’s part of the game. I’m also getting old. At one point, I won’t be up here. You’ll be interviewing another safety here in Baltimore.”

He still has enough going for him, though, to come down with a leaping, end zone interception with 1:51 left — the fourth and final Texans turnover — that turned aside the visitors’ last serious threat. It left him with a gimpy ankle, but “I was able to walk off at the end,” he said. Rest assured he’ll play next Sunday, even if they have to cart him out to the field in a wheelbarrow.

As for Lewis, the 16-year veteran who never rests, he led Baltimore in tackles as usual (with eight) and made a play almost as huge as Reed’s earlier in the fourth quarter. With Houston down 17-13 and on the move at midfield, he sniffed out a screen pass and dropped Arian Foster, a nightmare from start to finish (132 yards rushing, 22 receiving), for a 7-yard loss. Two plays later, cornerback Lardarius Webb picked off his second pass of the day, and the Texans were denied again.

Of course, the 60 minutes separating the Ravens from the Super Bowl won’t be spent in the warm embrace of M&T Bank Stadium, where a record 71,547 turned out to witness the team’s first home playoff game since 2006. No, the scene will be the tundra of Foxborough, Mass. — Gillette Stadium, specifically.

Lewis and Co. know the terrain well. Two years ago, in fact, they won a playoff game there by a whopping 33-14 margin. Their other three visits haven’t been as fruitful, though Lewis is right when he says, “They always come down to being classics.” The most recent one, last season, was decided by a field goal in overtime.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, they’ll be going up against a club that, unlike the Texans, does have the services of its No. 1 quarterback. Worse, that quarterback is Tom Brady, the GQ Assassin. Going from Yates to Brady in the space of seven days is like going from basic cable to DirecTV (with NFL Season Pass). But Lewis and his mates have been in more than their share of tough scrapes. They certainly can handle another one, even if it’s under polar-ice cap conditions.

“We’ve got to be a lot better than we were today, man,” Reed said. “They’re a great football team.” The thing about playing against Brady, he added, is that “you’ve gotta cover guy, [because] Brady doesn’t have a favorite target.”

On the other hand, the Patriots don’t have the league’s second-ranked defense like Houston does. The Texans gave Flacco a thorough working over — five sacks’ worth (split equally between rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed) - and held Baltimore to 227 yards, just 87 on the ground (to 315/131 of their own). Indeed, as you watched the proceedings, it was hard not to think the Texans, not the Ravens, are the future of the AFC (once QB Matt Schaub and pass-rushing fiend Mario Williams return from the injury list).

Anyway, defensively, the Pats aren’t nearly in Houston’s class. The way they looked against Tim Tebow in a 45-10 wipeout of Denver on Saturday isn’t the way they’ve looked against most offenses this season. So Flacco, who’s had his ups and downs, may not feel quite so besieged against them.

The Ravens don’t have to morph into the Lombardi Packers to take down New England, Lewis insisted. “All we have to do is be the team that we are. You don’t take anything from one week to the next week. It’s the 24-hour rule — win, lose or draw. You’re going to see a totally different team next week because we’re playing a totally different team in the New England Patriots. … We’re not the Denver Broncos. We’re the Baltimore Ravens.”

Usually, that’s enough.