BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens had scored three points in 27 minutes and trailed the unbeaten Houston Texans. Ray Rice was unavailable, the offence was struggling and the usually boisterous crowd was eerily quiet.
The defending Super Bowl champs were in dire need of a game-changing play, and Daryl Smith was there to provide it.
Smith stepped in front of tight end Owen Daniels, intercepted Matt Schaub's pass and took it 37 yards for a touchdown to propel the Ravens to a 30-9 victory Sunday.
Less than two minutes after Smith's pivotal TD, Tandon Doss scored on an 82-yard punt return. And just like that, the Ravens (2-1) were on their way to a lopsided victory against one of the AFC's top teams.
"Two huge plays by the defence and the special teams," coach John Harbaugh said.
The Ravens (2-1) won despite playing without Rice for the first time since 2008. Watching from the sideline with a strained left hip flexor, the three-time Pro Bowl running back was replaced by Bernard Pierce, who ran for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Baltimore got only four first downs and 65 yards of offence in the first half, yet went to the locker room with a 17-9 lead.
"A guy like Daryl makes a huge play and turns the game entirely around," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said.
Houston (2-1) led 6-3 before the interception return with 2:39 left in the first half. After a three-and-out by the Texans, Doss eluded several tacklers during his first career punt return for a touchdown.
"Over a four-play sequence, we give them 14 points," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "That's where the game turned, and we were playing catch-up all game long."
Houston compiled only 107 yards of offence in getting shut out in the second half. After scoring seven touchdowns in their first two games, the Texans were limited to three field goals by Randy Bullock.
Give much of the credit to the Ravens defence, which has not allowed a touchdown in eight quarters since a season-opening 49-27 defeat in Denver. With at least a half-dozen new faces, the unit remains a work in progress.
But this was a significant step.
"We do feel we're as far along as we could possibly be with this group," Harbaugh said. "We haven't given up the big plays."
Schaub went 25 for 35 for 194 yards and an interception. He played much of the second half without wide receiver Andre Johnson, who bruised his shin.
"I did not think he could run the way he needs to play, so we took him out," Kubiak said.
Schaub's most lamentable throw was the one that Smith took the other way.
"Poor decision on my part," Schaub said. "You got to be better in that situation, especially late in the half."
Joe Flacco was 16 of 24 for 171 yards to help the Ravens avenge last year's 43-13 blowout loss in Houston.
The Texans fell to 0-4 in Baltimore, including a defeat in the 2011 post-season. Houston came in as a slight favourite, but the Ravens again proved formidable at home, where they're 35-7 since the start of the 2008 season.
The game featured the return of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, who starred for years with Baltimore. Lewis was inducted into the Ravens Ring of Honor at halftime, and Reed made his debut with Houston at free safety after signing with the Texans as a free agent in March.
Reed long has been part of great defensive performances by the Ravens. This time, he was on the opposite end.
"Baltimore has a great defence," Reed said. "I told the guys coming into this game, defensively they're going to know every move that you're making, everything that you're doing."
Smith, Lewis' replacement at middle linebacker, knew all about Schaub's tendency to look for his tight end in those situations.
"It was something we saw on film during the week," he said. "We got pressure on the play and I jumped the route."
It was his first interception return for a score.
"It's like a dream; it's hazy," he said. "I remember catching it and running as fast as I can."
Notes: Ravens DT Terrence Cody sprained his knee in the first quarter and did not return. ... Ravens backup RB Shaun Draughn sprained his ankle. ... Houston was denied in its bid to go 3-0 for a second straight season. ... Smith became the 19th player in Ravens history to score on an INT return.