|Danieal Manning, Kareem Jackson & Co. failed to contain Torrey Smith and the Ravens last time. (Getty Images)|
HOUSTON -- Funny thing about the word "never:" eventually it morphs into words and phrases like "finally" and "for the first time."
For the Texans to reach next week's AFC title game, that means returning to Baltimore this Sunday and finally defeating a Ravens team that owns a 5-0 record against them. That includes a 29-14 loss Oct. 16 that dropped Houston, which at that time was dealing with the loss of OLB Mario Williams for the season and WR Andre Johnson for the first of nine games, to 3-3.
Trailing just 16-14 entering the fourth quarter, the Texans managed just 21 yards on their final three drives while the defense failed to make critical stops as Pro Bowl back Ray Rice gained 64 of his 101 yards in the final 15 minutes.
It was a loss that marked a turning point for the Texans. Having suffered a second straight loss after a remarkable 3-1 start and facing whispers from the media that they were setting themselves up for a collapse similar to 2010's pratfall, the seeds of Sunday's rematch were sown.
"We feel like that game kind of turned our season," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said following the wild-card win over the Bengals. "We feel like we could have played a whole lot better against them than we did."
This was especially true for the secondary, which was hurt by Ravens receivers Anquan Boldin and rookie Torrey Smith. They combined for 11 receptions for 216 yards.
"That was probably our worst game in the secondary for the whole season," safety Glover Quin said. "We felt like we let the team down in the back end. We left some plays out there that turned the game around the wrong way."
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Houston moved inside Baltimore territory seven times, yet had just two scores to show for it. Whereas the Texans failed to create big plays, the Ravens succeeded as Joe Flacco connected on passes of 56 and 51 yards to set up a pair of Billy Cundiff field goals while Rice added a 27-yard run that set up Ricky Williams' game-clinching score.
"They closed, and we didn't," said coach Gary Kubiak.
Redemption stands in front of the Texans on Sunday, presenting them with an opportunity to not only finally topple the Ravens in their home nest, but to also again poke a stick in the eyes of media and nation that has rendered them underdogs throughout the season.
Having played just one nationally televised game during the regular season, the Texans are the playoff version of the old American Express commercials during the late 1980s ("Do you know us?"), a role the team has accepted.
"I love being the underdog," said receiver Kevin Walter. "People aren't going to give us a chance this week; people didn't give us a chance last week. I know it motivates those guys in the locker room."
"I think a lot of people have said there are a lot of things we can't do," Kubiak said. "We've had to go to work and try to prove them wrong, so to speak. That's been part of our motivation as a football team."
That motivation showed during practice the week following the loss to the Ravens, translating into an emphatic 41-7 road drubbing of the Titans on Oct. 23 and became the capstone of a seven-game win streak that clinched the AFC South title.
Having rediscovered their formula -- a power running game and an anaconda-like defense that methodically suffocates teams into mistakes -- in the wild-card win, Houston returns to Baltimore a completely different team than the one that fell victim to their own potion three months ago.
The Texans also bring into M&T Bank Stadium the one major weapon they lacked in the first meeting: Johnson.
"It's huge," said second-team All-Pro ILB Brian Cushing of having Johnson. "I think it's very big from a confidence standpoint as well as for the entire offense and team. Just to see 80 out there, I know that you can go up to him any play."
The impact of Johnson spoke volumes last week. Not only did he catch five passes for 90 yards and a score, he kept the Bengals from stacking the box and opened running lanes for Pro Bowl RB Arian Foster, who carved up Cincinnati for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson's presence is a welcomed -- and much needed -- game-changing factor for a Texans offense, which must navigate the not-so-friendly skies against a Ravens secondary that is fourth in the league (right behind Houston) against the pass and is more stingy at home, where they have yet to lose this season.
Having faced Baltimore three times in the last four years, an element of surprise is not an issue that concerns the Texans.
"We've been there before, and it's not going to be anything new," Cushing said. "I'm sure it'll be a little louder with the playoff environment. They'll be excited [and] coming off a bye, but we'll be ready. Going up there, it's going to be a fun, exciting challenge, and we're ready for it."
"It's going to be tough," said OT Eric Winston. "We know what the crowd's going to be like, we know what they're going to be like. We just have to come off the bus ready to go. I think if we do that, we're going be there at the end with a chance to win it."
And a chance to turn "never" into "finally."