HOUSTON - This was a game defined by spectacular moments, on offense, defense, even special teams (hello, Steve Hauschka). But it was dominated by a player whose longest gain was a mere 12 yards and whose two most significant plays covered a total of 5 yards.
A player who didn't set foot on the field for the Ravens a week ago.
"I could have played," Willis McGahee said yesterday of his game-time decision to stay out of the Ravens' victory in Cleveland with a gimpy right ankle. "But I'm pretty sure I couldn't have played like this. I would have been out there hobbling."
Yesterday, McGahee was the one dishing out the hurt. The entire Ravens' offense spent the day punishing the Houston Texans' defense at a steady pace. But it was McGahee who was most often setting that pace, lugging it 25 times for 112 yards, both season highs, and two touchdowns, his most in one game as a Raven.
Most of the carries and yards were between the tackles, in heavy traffic, where the punishment to his perpetually battered body is greatest and where it benefited the Ravens the most. It was, he said, "my best game of the year."
Oh, the Ravens' 41-13 win had a lot of bells and whistles: two interceptions by Ray Lewis, one by Haloti Ngata; the latest flourishes from the Suggs Package, just to name a few. But at the core of the Ravens' fourth straight win, and third straight on the road, was your basic, blue-collar, smash-mouth, clock-winding, chain-moving ground game. Led by someone who always seems hurt (because he often is) but who keeps coming back to hurt himself and the opposing defense again.
This week, McGahee was CEO of the backs-by-committee, after Ray Rice filled the role last week with 154 yards. This time, the trio of McGahee, Le'Ron McClain and Rice combined for 36 carries and 148 yards, a crisp 4.1 a pop. Twenty of those carries, and 89 of those yards, came from McGahee in the second half alone.
It becomes more obvious every week that the Ravens can run the ball at will no matter who runs it and whom they run it against - which is nice to have tucked away now that it's November and they're, yes, in the playoff hunt. Rice, who actually started the game and finished with pedestrian numbers (seven carries, 17 yards), couldn't have cared less that his elder had retaken the spotlight.
"How many did he have?" Rice asked. "That's what I mean; it really doesn't matter. We've got three good backs who can all run it, so when one gets off, we're like, 'Hey, it's supposed to happen.' "
McClain carried it just four times, but three of them were on second or third-and-one, and he got the first down each time. It almost wasn't fair.
On their first three possessions of the second half, the Ravens sandwiched two touchdowns around a long missed field goal by Matt Stover and pretty much locked the game up. They set things up by plowing the Texans backward and chewing up time. Eventually, Sage Rosenfels was playing as if he had to score fast every time and then was throwing it straight to Ravens defenders.
Give credit to McGahee's fresh legs and the fact that the Ravens can afford to let him recover. Plus the fact that McGahee hates feeling left out of the fun. "I'm one of those players who can't sit on the sidelines and just watch my teammates play," he said. "I want to go out and be a part of it."
Last week, he wasn't. This week, he was. Either way, the Ravens' fun doesn't seem to stop.
Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).