For a team attempting to make its mark, the stakes in Sunday’s AFC Divisional playoff game couldn’t be higher for the Texans when they take on Baltimore on the road.
The Texans have a chance to venture deeper into unchartered territory during the franchise’s first playoff run.
But with the framework of that opportunity is a chance for the Texans defense to atone for what is their worst performance of the season when they faced the Ravens earlier in the year at M&T Bank Stadium.
After playing fairly well for three quarters, the unit that was still in its infancy of Wade Phillips new 3-4 scheme fell apart in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up some big runs to Ray Rice and perhaps most disheartening gave up some big pass plays from Joe Flacco to rookie Torrey Smith and veteran Anquan Boldin to set up scores to allow the Ravens to outscore them 13-0 en route to the 29-14 loss.
Billy Cundiff converted two field goals of 33 and 40 yards and running back Ricky Williams ran in a touchdown from four yards out to break open what was just a two-point deficit for the Texans going into the fourth quarter.
When it was all done, Flacco had thrown for 305 yards, while Rice had ran for 101 yards and Boldin accounted for 132 yards on eight catches. In total the Ravens put up 402 yards of offense on the day.
That one obviously still stings.
“I still remember after the game Coach was just talking to us,” inside linebacker Brian Cushing recalled this week. “Basically he was telling us it was not acceptable. I think it hit home to a lot of guys.”
Back then, the Texans defense was in a bit of disarray. The unit had just lost All-Pro Mario Williams, who was learning the outside linebacker spot, a week earlier in the Oakland game. Not knowing what to do, the Texans inserted rookie Brooks Reed into the key spot in the defense that was responsible for pressuring the quarterback.
Immediately after the Ravens loss, which was the Texans third in four games, some decisions were made that quickly turned around the fortunes of the defense. Reed remained a starter but he flipped flopped with veteran Connor Barwin from the weakside outside linebacker position to the strong side.
Barwin became the beast at the rush outside linebacker spot that perhaps Williams wasn’t yet. Johnathan Joseph also stepped up as a lockdown corner following that game, earning a spot on this year’s Pro Bowl.
It became the watershed moment for the Texans, as the defense starting clicking to the point it was the No.1 overall unit in the NFL and the team as a whole went on a seven-game winning streak. The idea that one game could have brought about so much change seems a reach but it did.
Now the Texans return to the scene of the place they seemed to figure it all out with a chance to not only advance to the AFC Championship round but also with a chance to show everyone how much they have grown since game No.6 on Oct. 16. Phillips now estimates the Texans have about 30 percent more of the defense than they knew when the two teams met earlier this season.
“We were still new to the defense, still growing and finding our identity as a defense,” said Cushing, who has evolved into one of the elite linebackers in the NFL. “We are a whole lot better now, but I am sure they are, too. Good teams play their best ball at the end of the season. We felt that way from a learning standpoint and momentum. Where we are now compared to that game we are a lot better.”
But how good is good? What might be most intriguing about Sunday’s matchup is to see how the Texans defense stacks up against the one that has been the gold standard in defense for the better part of the last decade.
Cushing seemed to get robbed when 16-year veteran middle linebacker Ray Lewis was selected to the AFC Pro Bowl team ahead of him last month, and now we will get a chance to see which one will make the most difference-making plays for their team Sunday.
And Barwin has been the biggest surprise of the season but on the side is one of the premiere pass rushers in the game in Terrell Suggs.
Many of the names have changed, but safety Ed Reed and Lewis and the Ravens’ dominant defensive reputation have continued on.
A chance at redemption and the opportunity to outdo what is still one of the best defensive units takes Sunday’s matchup to another level.
“In the defensive player’s mind it’s our defense against their defense,” said Texans defensive end Antonio Smith. “Who does better? And 9 times out of 10 the defense that does better is going to be the team that wins.”
That makes sense because defense’s win championships. Just ask the Ravens, who won Super Bowl XXXV in 2000 with defense and one of the most non-descript offenses ever.
“Them and Pittsburgh are,” Smith said when asked which team set the gold standard for defense in the NFL. “Those are the two names that are going to come up when you talk about defense. They are the ones who set the precedent for teams winning championships because of their defense.”
The Ravens are who the Texans most want to imitate and beat the same time Sunday.