33F M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, MD
The well-rested Baltimore Ravens claimed their first AFC North crown since 2006 thanks in large part to going undefeated at home for the first time in team history.
While home playoff games have been few and far between, the only time they won one led to a championship 11 years ago.
Seeking to end that drought and begin a run back to the Super Bowl, the Ravens look to improve to 6-0 all-time against the Houston Texans in a divisional playoff matchup Sunday.
Baltimore (12-4) is looking to win its playoff opener for the fourth straight year. The last three came in wild-card games, but the Ravens didn't even have to play in that round this year because they claimed a first-round bye and the division title with a 24-16 win at Cincinnati in Week 17.
"It's one down and two to go in terms of championships," coach John Harbaugh said. "They'll be no taking anything for granted, that's for sure."
Each of Baltimore's seven postseason games during Harbaurgh's tenure have been on the road, going 4-3. The Ravens haven't hosted a playoff game since falling 15-6 to Indianapolis in the divisional round after the 2006 season, and their only previous postseason victory at home was a 21-3 wild-card win over Denver on Dec. 31, 2000.
That sparked their path to winning Super Bowl XXXV, and the Ravens believe Sunday could be the start of another memorable run.
"We have the team to do it now. We don't have too many more excuses," 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Let's go do it right now. Then whatever else comes after that for all of your careers, you go enjoy it, but go win a championship.
"There are a lot of men that came in this business, and that's the one thing they have left this business without, and that's the ring. I have touched it before. To go back with this group of men could be a special thing."
Much of the Ravens' success can be attributed to taking care of business at home, where they've won 10 in a row while outscoring opponents by an average of 11.2 points. Their defense has allowed 15.0 points per game in that span - only two visitors this season scored more than 17.
The Texans (11-6) know all too well about that home-field advantage, losing 29-14 in Baltimore on Oct. 16 - and that was back when Matt Schaub was still playing. Houston gave up that game's final 16 points to fall to 0-5 in this all-time series, getting outscored by 10.8 per game.
"We've been there before, and it's not going to be anything new," linebacker Brian Cushing said. "I'm sure it'll be a bit louder, with the playoff environment. They'll be excited, coming off a bye. But we'll be ready. Going up there, it's going to be a fun, exciting challenge. We're ready for it."
The Texans, in the first postseason in franchise history, claimed their first playoff victory with a 31-10 rout of Cincinnati last Saturday.
Rookie T.J. Yates completed 11 of 20 passes for 159 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown to All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson .
"All I am thinking about is what is next for this organization," said Johnson, who missed the Ravens game with a hamstring injury. "So we go to Baltimore (this) week, and we are going to try to go up there and do what we did (Saturday)."
While Yates, thrown under center after season-ending injuries to Schaub and Matt Leinart , has held his own, it remains to be seen how he'll respond in a very unfriendly environment against a vaunted defense. Baltimore led the AFC this season with 48 sacks.
"This will be probably be the ultimate test from the standpoint of the noise and being there in a playoff game," coach Gary Kubiak said. "But it's our job as coaches, too, to make sure that we're doing things that give him the best chance to get in and out of the huddle and go play and to give our guys up front the best chance."
Another strong effort from star running back Arian Foster would surely make things easier on Yates. Foster, fifth in the league with 1,224 rushing yards this season despite missing three games, had 24 carries for 153 yards and two TDs last weekend.
Foster, though, was held to 49 yards on 15 attempts at Baltimore earlier this season.
"That's the objective - first and foremost is to stop the run," Ravens defensive end Cory Redding told the team's official website. "You can't let him get going."
Baltimore ranked second in the NFL with 92.6 rushing yards allowed per game. The Texans weren't far behind, surrendering 96.0 per contest, but could have their hands full with Ray Rice .
He gashed them for 161 yards from scrimmage during the last meeting. Rice recorded an NFL-best 2,068 yards from scrimmage this year and ran for 191 in Week 17, but he was limited to 89 yards on 29 carries in two playoff games last season.
Joe Flacco has had his share of problems in the postseason despite being the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first three seasons. He has four TD passes with seven interceptions and two lost fumbles in seven playoff games, throwing for less than 190 yards and completing below 58.0 percent in six of them.
However, all of those games were on the road. He has a 96.1 quarterback rating over his last four home games.
Flacco is expected to have Anquan Boldin (knee) at his disposal after the star wideout missed the final two games of the regular season. Boldin had a season-high eight receptions for 132 yards versus the Texans in October.