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The Ravens’ defense held its own as Lamar Jackson worked his magic

Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike tackles Texans running back Devin Singletary during Saturday's AFC playoff game in Baltimore. (Nick Wass/AP)
5 min

BALTIMORE — Lamar Jackson receives top billing on the Baltimore Ravens, and rightfully so. He is one of the biggest stars in a quarterback-driven league. He is in line to be the NFL MVP for the second time, and he threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more as the Ravens began the AFC playoffs with a 34-10 triumph Saturday over the Houston Texans in the divisional round.

But as the Ravens prepare to host the AFC championship game next Sunday for the first time, they know their defense played a co-starring role against the Texans and will have to remain just as reliable if this promising season is to conclude with postseason glory.

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“The defense was just as good as it could be,” Coach John Harbaugh said Saturday.

The Ravens held the Texans without a touchdown on offense; Houston reached the end zone only on a second-quarter punt return by Steven Sims. The Ravens didn’t do it with big plays — they had no sacks of rookie C.J. Stroud and forced no turnovers. They simply shut the Texans down, limiting them to 10 first downs and 213 yards.

“We know who we are, deep down, each and every guy in this locker room,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “So it’s just more so about playing to the best of your ability, play in and play out. And like I tell the guys all the time: ‘If you do that, nobody can touch us. But if we get complacent, that’s when people can hang with us.’ ”

This is a franchise, and a city, that appreciates rugged defense. This is a team historically defined by its defensive stars — Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs — as much as by its franchise quarterbacks.

This Ravens defense has no standouts of that magnitude. But it does have four Pro Bowl selections: Smith, fellow linebacker Patrick Queen, safety Kyle Hamilton and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike. The Ravens ranked sixth in the NFL in yards allowed during the regular season. And their defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald, has become a popular head coaching candidate leaguewide.

“I know my motto is, like, ‘Hit everything that moves,’ ” Smith said. “And I echo that throughout to the defense. And the defense feels the same way. It’s about just like imposing your will on cats throughout the game. And eventually, nine times out of 10, most cats are going to break. That’s just human nature. That’s who we are. And we just have to do what we do, to the best of our ability. ... If we do that, that’s all she wrote.”

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The defense kept the Ravens well positioned in the first half as the offense struggled on a blustery afternoon. The Ravens were playing their first meaningful game in nearly three weeks after Jackson sat out the regular season finale, with the AFC’s No. 1 seed already in hand, and the team had an opening-round bye.

The Ravens, at that point, were in jeopardy of repeating their bitter playoff disappointment from the 2019 season. That was Jackson’s first MVP season, and the Ravens entered the playoffs as the AFC’s top seed. But they promptly lost a divisional-round game at home to the Tennessee Titans.

“I mean, everything can play a part of it,” Jackson said. “You can’t say, like, we [were] rusty. It was windy. It was cold as heck out there. Everything played a factor. But the thing I’m proud about our team is we came out the second half and did what we were supposed to do and put points on the board.”

The Ravens outscored the Texans 24-0 in the second half. That came after a halftime, Jackson said, in which he did most of the talking. He said later that it would be “inappropriate” to repeat what he had said to his teammates, acknowledging there was a “lot of cursing” involved.

“We know what we’re capable of,” Queen said. “And we weren’t putting that out on the field.”

It will be the first AFC championship game played in Baltimore since January 1971, when the Colts beat the Oakland Raiders to advance to Super Bowl V. The Ravens are attempting to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2012 season.

“It’s real, and it’s out there for the taking,” kicker Justin Tucker said. “And this team, I think, is built to handle the challenge accordingly.”

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It was a jubilant postgame locker room for the Ravens. Harbaugh even showed off some celebratory dance moves. But Jackson was quick to remind his teammates that plenty of work remains.

“It’s a big deal,” Tucker said. “But when Lamar addressed the team just a moment ago, he said what we’re all thinking and what we’re all feeling: This was just the next step. We have pretty big goals ahead of us.”

The Ravens’ victory Saturday meant they will end the Kansas City Chiefs’ streak of home AFC championship games at five. The Ravens will face the winner of Sunday’s divisional-round game in Orchard Park, N.Y., between the second-seeded Buffalo Bills and the third-seeded Chiefs. Either way, the Ravens must deal with a star quarterback — the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes or the Bills’ Josh Allen.

The task will be formidable. The Ravens will have to play a more complete game than they did Saturday. It’s unlikely they would get away with basically sleepwalking through an entire half.

Harbaugh said the Ravens’ locker room was “a little edgy” at halftime Saturday. That was just fine, as it turned out.

“Our guys are going to stay edgy,” Harbaugh said. “... But they’re determined, and they’re motivated. And it’s going to be a great team coming in here next week. We’re going to have to play our best football.”