The Baltimore Ravens couldn't be beaten at home this season, an accomplishment that earned them a trip to a place that's has long been torturous for visiting teams.
Baltimore secured a berth in the AFC championship game by defeating the Houston Texans 20-13 on Sunday. The Ravens' first home playoff win since 2000 gave them a 9-0 record at M&T Bank Stadium this season.
Now they're heading to Foxborough, Mass., for a Sunday matchup with the top-seeded New England Patriots, who improved to 8-1 at home with a 45-10 rout of the Denver Broncos on Saturday night.
Baltimore is 1-6 all-time against New England, but that one win was a 33-14 rout in the 2009 playoffs.
"We've gone out there and played before," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw two touchdown passes against Houston. "We have won in New England. They are one of the teams, like us, that's tough to beat at home. We know how tough it is to go into a place like that, a place like here, and win a football game. So we're going to have to make sure we prepare well all week and bring our A-game up there."
The Ravens didn't have their A-game going against the Texans. They had almost as many punts (nine) as first downs (11), got only 80 yards from Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice (60 on the ground, 20 through the air) and scored three points over the final 46 minutes.
"I would anticipate, against the team we're about to play, you have to do a better job offensively in terms of stats and points," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
But Baltimore did not get called for a single penalty, didn't commit a turnover and registered four takeaways — including three interceptions of rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.
"I always say there is a right way to do things, there is a wrong way to do things and there is just the Ravens' way of doing things," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It wasn't pretty but we're not really a pretty team. We got the W and now it's on to the AFC championship."
The Texans (11-7) are headed home, but with their heads high. Their first foray into the postseason began with a 31-10 rout of Cincinnati and ended with a valiant effort behind a determined rookie quarterback and a defense that lived up to its No. 2 regular-season ranking.
"Guys are disappointed, but at the same time, being this was our first time, it was a great learning experience for us," said wide receiver Andre Johnson, who had eight catches for 111 yards. "When we come back and get in this position again, we'll know how to deal with it."
Arian Foster ran for 132 yards, the first player to top 100 yards on the ground against the Ravens in the postseason. That gave him an NFL-record 285 yards rushing over his first two playoff games.
"We gave it our best shot, but the beautiful thing about his thing we have in Houston is that it can only go up from here," Foster said. "Houston should be excited about it. I'm excited about it, and this franchise is excited about it."
Baltimore led 17-3 after the first quarter, and interceptions by Lardarius Webb and Ed Reed in the final 7½ minutes helped the advantage stand up.
Reed has eight interceptions in 10 playoff games, few bigger than the last one.
"You can't say enough about him," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "His big plays always seem to happen when you need one."
Yates' three interceptions matched the total he had in six regular season games.
"I can't have the turnovers," Yates said. "If we don't turn the ball over like that, we have a chance to win. And we still had a chance to win. If I'd done a better job of protecting the football, I really think we'd have come out with the win today. We did a good job of moving the ball and we had some big plays, but you can't have that many picks."
The rookie QB was forced into Houston's starting lineup because Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart got hurt, part of a string of injuries the Texans managed to overcome en route to the AFC South title. That Houston was in the second round of the playoffs at all was seen as a significant accomplishment, given they lost two quarterbacks to injuries, played nine games without Johnson and finished without sack specialist Mario Williams.
Afterward, owner Bob McNair pulled aside coach Gary Kubiak to offer some encouraging words.
"I told him how proud I was. ... To come out and play the way this team has played, I think it's just remarkable," McNair said. "Where would New England have been if (Tom) Brady wasn't playing, and if Wes Welker wasn't playing, and if their best defensive player wasn't playing? Go down the list of any of these teams and ask where they would be — and they wouldn't be in the playoffs. And this team was in the playoffs."
Down 17-13 at halftime, Houston twice held the Ravens without a first down in the third quarter before driving to the Baltimore 32. From there, Neil Rackers' 50-yard field goal try hit the crossbar and dropped into the end zone.
Baltimore then launched a drive in which seldom-used Lee Evans made a sensational one-handed catch for a 30-yard gain on third-and-5 from the Houston 39. On fourth-and-goal inside the 1, Rice was stuffed by linebacker Tim Dobbins for no gain.
"That's a huge play," Houston defensive end J.J. Watt said. "Those are the type of plays that win playoffs games. Obviously, we wish it had gone the other way, but those are the type of plays that you remember."
The Texans couldn't move the ball, and the Ravens took the ensuing punt at the Houston 49. But three plays netted only 4 yards, and Sam Koch punted for the seventh time.
Minutes later, the Ravens went three and out for the fourth time in five second-half possessions. Fortunately for Baltimore, the defense compensated for the team's inability to add to its early lead.
"You have to do whatever you have to do to win a football game," Harbaugh said.
NOTES: Baltimore improved to 6-0 against Houston, 2-0 this season. ... It was the Ravens' first home playoff win since 2000. ... With the Ravens' home win, it's the first time since the NFL went to current playoff format in 1990 that the first seven games have been won by the home team.