Motivated Ravens defense reaches a new level in statement win over Texans

BALTIMORE -- Earl Thomas had a moment of honesty at his locker after the Ravens's 41-7 stomping of the Houston Texans. He knew the AFC South leaders weren't slouches, and he and quarterback Deshaun Watson share an agent so they've become tight in the past three seasons.

"I hope nobody on the team gets offended," Thomas started, "but I just didn't think we were going to do them like that."

It was a shocking result for what was thought to be the premier AFC matchup of Week 11. Of Watson's 11 career regular-season losses, not one has been by more than eight points. He lost 21-7 in his lone playoff appearance, but even that's a respectable margin of defeat.

But for the league's 13th-ranked scoring defense to hold the Texans (6-4) to a single-digit output for the first time since Week 16 of the 2017 season? For a team with 16 total sacks in nine games to sack Watson six times? No one saw this coming.

Baltimore's defense hasn't been this good all season. Weeks 3 and 4 saw the Ravens (8-2) give up more than 500 yards of total offense against the Chiefs and Browns, respectively. (That Browns game may wind up being the most head-scratching loss of the NFL season, by the way.) Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has dealt with chaotic personnel groupings due to injury all season, but things started turning Baltimore's way shortly after the trade for cornerback Marcus Peters in Week 7.

In the four games since, the Ravens have allowed just five touchdowns.

"Our game plan has been consistent for the past few weeks," cornerback Brandon Carr told me. "We have a lot of playmakers on our side of the ball. For a coaching staff it's awesome to have so many playmakers and at the same time you've got to get them on the field and get them into a routine, into a groove. The coaches do a great job of rolling us in, keeping the offense on their toes. Instead of them attacking us, we're attacking them now.

"We're just chasing greatness man. Every week whoever we play, whether it's Tom Brady or the Cincinnati Bengals or Deshaun Watson, we've got to bring our 'A' game. We're playing against ourselves now. It's us versus us."

But there was some outside motivation the Ravens got just before the game started. Late in pregame warmups, Baltimore's defensive backs noticed Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins standing at the 50-yard line watching them warm up. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey wasn't sure if Hopkins was trying to make his territory in their building or just simply offer the garden variety intimidation tactic.

"He said it's going to take two of us to take him out of the game," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith told me about Hopkins.

Hopkins was the game's leading receiver with seven catches for 80 yards, but he never got a game-breaking play throughout the day while mostly being covered by Marcus Peters, who was happy to exchange words with Hopkins all day.

"It didn't work too well for him," Humphrey said. "Marcus took care of him. Marcus did his thing against him."

No team has more impressive victories than the Ravens. Baltimore has beaten Russell Wilson's Seahawks in Seattle, choked out Tom Brady's Patriots in primetime and handed Watson an MVP-disqualifying game.

And speaking of MVP, Lamar Jackson remains atop the list with Wilson for the year-end award. Sunday's win was his fifth game this season with a passer rating above 100. He threw for four touchdowns and accounted for 308 yards of total offense before getting pulled with 10 minutes left in the game. And he also broke Michael Vick's 15-year record of the most consecutive games with 60 or more rushing yards by a quarterback with his seventh straight game.

Several defensive players talked about the improving team chemistry, but nothing exemplifies that more than their want to get Jackson the MVP award. Thomas said Jackson "separated himself" again in the discussion and that getting him the trophy "was extra motivation to play the best football we possibly could."

"We had to make a statement and show our quarterback is better," defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. "So we had to stop him to let Lamar shine."

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