Ray Lewis hugged coach John Harbaugh and barked: “They’re coming through Baltimore.”
Yes, they are, Ray, at least this weekend.
The divisional round of the NFL playoffs will make a stop at the Inner Harbor on Sunday when the Ravens host the Houston Texans. It’s the first home playoff game under Harbaugh, who led the team to a wild-card berth in his previous three seasons.
While the Ravens (12-4) don’t have home-field advantage for the entire AFC playoffs unless New England loses Saturday night to Denver, it’s a cozy start for Baltimore, which won all eight games at M&T Bank Stadium in 2011.
“If you look at wild-card weekend, I don’t think that there was one home team that lost the whole weekend,” Lewis said accurately. “When you get into that, it plays a big momentum. It’s a big momentum swing for you. It’s just hard to win on the road. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care how good you are, it’s hard to win on the road.
“For us to work as hard as we did, get 12 wins, do the things we were supposed to do, and now get this home playoff game, we have positioned ourselves to be in the right place. Now we have to go finish it.”
The divisional round begins Saturday with New Orleans (13-4) at San Francisco (13-3). It ends with the New York Giants (10-7) at defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay (15-1).
Houston lost 29-14 at Baltimore in October, when the Texans were healthier than they have been for the last six weeks. But they’ve dealt with their injuries so well that they won their first division crown and, last week in their postseason debut, beat the Bengals handily.
So if hosting a playoff game is relatively new for the Ravens — they have done it three times, but haven’t won one since 2000, the year they took the Super Bowl — being in one is totally new this year for the Texans.
Also new would be a win over the Ravens, who are 5-0 against Houston.
“It’s been pretty one-sided so, we’ve got to get on the board,” tackle Eric Winston said. “At the same time, you’ve got to look back on it and I don’t think a lot of that stuff is going to have a lot of bearing on this game either, though. So, there’s different guys, there’s a different situation and we all know from past experiences that playoffs, funny things happen in the playoffs and games turn out a lot different than they did in the regular season. So hopefully we can hold true to that.”
The Packers also have a regular-season win over their opponent, a 38-35 victory at the Meadowlands. It was one of Green Bay’s most difficult games.
The Giants have won four of five since that loss, including manhandling Atlanta 24-2 last weekend. Their pass rush has come alive and the running game has awakened.
So the Giants believe they match up pretty well with the NFL’s best team. So much so that All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is predicting victory. Then again, is he supposed to predict defeat?
“It comes from the heart. Who in his right mind is going to say the team is going to lose?” he said with a wide smile. “Nobody wants that. We’re trying to go all the way, win the tournament.”
No one has won at Lambeau Field since Miami on Oct. 17, 2010. The Giants were blown out 45-17 in Game 15 of that season when they were in position to make the playoffs.
But New York shocked the Packers in the 2007 NFC championship game, then pulled off an even bigger upset by taking down the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. Green Bay is wary — as wary as a 15-1 team needs to be.
“There is a reason why we are both playing in this game. We are two of the last four teams in the NFC,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “They are playing well and they wouldn’t be here if they were not, so to me, that is to be expected. I think they are playing better than when they played us and earlier in the season they had some tough defeats also. It is playoff football and they are a very good football team.”
San Francisco makes its return to the postseason after an eight-year absence and gets quite a challenge: the potent Saints and record-setting quarterback Drew Brees. New Orleans was unstoppable in the second half against Detroit in the wild-card round, but the 49ers’ defense is immensely better than the Lions’ unit.
“They’ve got everything going for them right now,” 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Brees and company. “They’ve got a great quarterback who’s got great weapons to throw to. He’s got a great offensive line in front of him. The guy’s only been sacked 24 times in the regular season, and that’s off of 700 times they’ve thrown the ball, dropped back to pass. So, that’s impressive in and of itself, and to top it off, they’ve got a great scheme. They really give you a lot of offense to prepare for.”
The 49ers offense did just enough all season, thanks to the running of Frank Gore and the overall offensive efficiency: just 10 turnovers all season. San Francisco also led the league with 38 takeaways and a plus-28 turnover differential.