Lamar Jackson gets all the attention, and he should. He's about to be a two-time NFL MVP.
He's also not the only reason the Baltimore Ravens are a win away from the Super Bowl. Ask the Houston Texans' offense.
The best thing the Ravens could do to take pressure off of Jackson, who has yet to break through with a long postseason run, was to make sure he didn't need to do it all. Jackson had a big second half on Saturday. The Ravens' defense wasn't going to let the Texans win anyway.
Houston struggled to get any run game going, star rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud didn't hit many big plays and the Texans' offense was held out of the end zone in a 34-10 Ravens win. Baltimore, the No. 1 seed in the AFC, moves on to the conference championship game. They'll host the winner of Sunday's Kansas City Chiefs-Buffalo Bills game. The Ravens aren't unbeatable, but they looked like the best team in football on Saturday.
Much of the narrative surrounding the Ravens' great season has been Jackson, and that started to shift from his stellar regular season to old criticisms about his postseason résumé. Jackson played well on Saturday, particularly in the second half. But the Ravens' defense was the real star. That's what transforms the Ravens from a team with an incredible quarterback to one that could win a Super Bowl.
Ravens defense has a big day
The Ravens are used to having great defenses. This defense is a bit different than ones from the Ed Reed/Ray Lewis era.
There are some very good players on the Ravens' defense but not many obvious superstars. What sums up the Ravens' defense is the group doesn't have one elite pass rusher like a Myles Garrett or T.J. Watt, yet led the NFL with 60 sacks.
The Ravens are very good at linebacker — a trade for inside linebacker Roquan Smith during last season transformed their defense — and safety Kyle Hamilton's versatility allows the defense to do a lot of different things. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald had an excellent season. That's a reason he's getting head-coaching interviews.
Saturday's performance was typical of Baltimore's excellence on defense. The Ravens, rested from getting a bye week as the top seed, flew to the ball and often had multiple defenders hitting the ballcarrier. Stroud had a few nice plays but the Ravens mostly covered well. Not all of their pressure resulted in sacks, but they made sure Stroud wasn't comfortable in the pocket.
The Ravens have had a tremendous season. Jackson gets the accolades and will get an MVP trophy soon. The defense deserves its credit too.
Ravens explode in 2nd half
The first half brought some nervous moments for the Ravens. They got a touchdown from Jackson to Nelson Agholor and held Houston without an offensive touchdown, but there were issues.
The Ravens weren't doing a great job protecting Jackson. He was holding it too long and took three sacks. Baltimore had just 118 yards at halftime, and Jackson had just 52 yards passing at that point.
The biggest play of the first half came against the Ravens' special teams. Steven Sims, elevated from Houston's practice squad on Tuesday, had a 67-yard punt return up the middle for a touchdown. The Ravens usually have among the best special teams in the NFL. Giving up a punt return touchdown — the first punt return TD in the playoffs since 2013 — was a sign that the Ravens might have been pressing. The score was tied 10-10 at halftime. As the half ended, the pressure was entirely on the Ravens and their quarterback.
Baltimore shrugged that off with a dominant second half. The Ravens needed a fast start to the second half and got it. A good kickoff return led to a touchdown drive, with Jackson scoring on a 15-yard run. They ran it very well and the defense was allowing nothing. The lead grew from seven to 14 to 21 on a Jackson touchdown run with 6:20 left. Jackson had 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He threw for 152 yards and two touchdowns. He was excellent, and that's no big surprise.
Lamar Jackson is the first player in NFL HISTORY (regular season or postseason) to have in one game:
2 passing touchdowns
2 rushing touchdowns
100 rushing yards
100 passer rating
— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) January 21, 2024
As the Ravens move on to the AFC championship game, all eyes will be Jackson trying to make his first Super Bowl. He has a heck of a defense trying to help him get there.