Look closely and you can see a lot of the Ravens in the young Texans. Will the baton be passed from one great defense to another Sunday in Baltimore?
The top storylines:
1. Defensive showdown. The Texans were ranked second defensively, while the Ravens were ranked third. In terms of points allowed, they finished third and fourth respectively. On paper, the teams are also evenly matched on offense, with the Texans having a slight edge in most categories.
2. Final chance for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed? The AFC is wide open and some would argue that the Ravens are the conference’s most complete team. But you also get the feeling an era is coming to an end in Baltimore.
3. Revenge! Vonta Leach hates his former team. (We had to really claw for a third storyline here.)
The last time they met…
- The Ravens beat the Texans 29-14 in Week 6, but Houston actually had a 14-13 lead in the third quarter on the road. That was with Matt Schaub running the offense, but the Texans didn’t have a healthy Andre Johnson at that point.
- Baltimore scored 16 unanswered second-half points to run away with it despite losing the turnover battle 2-0.
- The Ravens defense completely smothered the Texans down the stretch, forcing them to punt three times in the final 17 minutes and six times overall.
- Baltimore also averaged nearly twice the number of yards per play that Houston did (8.3 to 4.9).
Injuries to watch:
- Injuries are barely a factor, but Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels aren’t 100 percent for the Texans.
- The Ravens are remarkably healthy, but Ed Reed hasn’t been right thanks to a shoulder problem.
Here’s why I’m taking the Ravens to win quite securely:
1. The Ravens rise to the occasion. They were 6-0 against playoff teams this year, outscoring them 158-87. That’s just unbelievable. The Texans were 3-2 against playoff teams during the season, and they certainly upped their game for the Bengals on wild-card weekend. But Baltimore seems to have an extra level against elite opponents.
2. The Ravens are dominant at home. They’re 8-0 at M&T Bank Stadium this year and have lost just one game in Baltimore since the 2009 season. In their eight home games this season, they won by an average of 12.5 points per. This isn’t overwhelming evidence that Baltimore will win going away, because the Texans were 5-3 on the road, outscoring their opponents by almost a touchdown per and Houston faced four winning teams away from home (compared to only three for the Ravens), but it’s another factor that favors them.
3. The Ravens had a tougher road. Their opponents had a winning percentage of .496 in the rest of their games. That number for Houston’s regular-season opponents: .458. Baltimore won two more games than the Texans did despite a much more challenging schedule.
4. I’m a little worried about Baltimore’s energy level. The Ravens have been inconsistent this season, and I don’t think there’s a team in this league that seems to require motivation more than them. It might not be as easy to manufacture that motivation for a team like Houston as it would be for a division rival such as Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. Historically, the Ravens have also lost on this very weekend in three of their last four playoff appearances. For these reasons, I’m slightly cautious. Still, I think they’ll find the right motivation for a playoff game against a feisty defense like this one, especially considering that this is only their second home playoff game in over a decade.
5. And the Texans have a lot of momentum. Again, I don’t know how big of a role these intangible factors will play, but it’s tough to tell how the Ravens will react to the bye since they’ve never had one in the John Harbaugh era (and they’ve only had one in franchise history, which led to a loss). The Texans aren’t as well rested, but they’re coming off maybe their best game of the entire year, while we saw the Ravens lay an egg in San Diego only three weeks ago.
6. The pass rushes are wild cards. The Ravens gave up seven sacks in San Diego, but they’ve only surrendered two over their last two games. Houston’s pass rush was key against the Bengals, but it had also been hit or miss late in the season. Meanwhile, the Ravens led the AFC with 48 sacks during the regular season and had four in the last meeting with Houston. That could be the difference, especially considering the playoff experience Baltimore has on both sides of the ball.
7. Joe Flacco > T.J. Yates. We compared Yates to Andy Dalton last week to prove that since the beginning of December Yates had been just as good. And while Flacco’s regular-season numbers weren’t much better than those Yates put up and Flacco’s postseason reputation has been greatly inflated by wins (his numbers have been well below par), I’ll still take the veteran over the rookie, especially knowing what Baltimore’s defense can do to deer-in-headlights quarterbacks.
8. Baltimore has more playmakers. With all due respect to Arian Foster, if anyone on either side can make a big play, it’s Ray Rice. As good as Foster’s been, he doesn’t have the same home-run ability that Rice does. Rice, who’s also a bigger contributor to the pass game, led the league with five runs of 40 yards or more during the regular season (Foster had two). Plus, the Ravens have the second-best run D in the league, while the Texans were only middle of the pack in terms of yards per carry allowed.
Same rule applies to the Baltimore defense, where there may not be a bigger playmaker in the league than potential defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs.
9. Which Texans defense will show up? The one that was a mess late in the season or the one that dominated Cincinnati? This is a probably a question we don’t have to ask with Baltimore. That’s the key.
In conclusion, Baltimore is simply too good for the Texans, especially at home. Houston committed zero turnovers in that first meeting, yet still lost by 15 points. This is a double-digit win for the Ravens.
GLS prediction: Ravens 27, Texans 17
(Last week’s record: 3-1 straight up; 2-1-1 against the spread)