Sunday represents a homecoming for a number of players and coaches as the Ravens travel to Houston to take on the Texans.
From offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and assistants Rick Dennison and Brian Pariani to tight end Owen Daniels, running back Justin Forsett, and wide receiver Jacoby Jones, plenty of Ravens will be returning to a place they called home for a number of years, but there’s little time for sentimentality when you’re in the playoff race. At 9-5, Baltimore can clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 with a win and losses by both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh or a win over the Texans coupled with defeats by both San Diego and Kansas City.
On the surface, the Ravens should feel very confident as the Texans are turning to their fourth quarterback of the season — expected to be the newly-signed Case Keenum — but Houston still possesses the best defensive player on the planet in J.J. Watt and a powerful running game that ranks fourth in the NFL. The 7-7 Texans are a long shot to sneak into the playoffs at this point, but they’d like nothing more than to spoil Baltimore’s playoff chances on Sunday.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Texans meet for the seventh time in regular-season history with the Ravens holding a 6-1 edge, which doesn’t include their 20-13 win over Houston in the 2011 postseason. Baltimore is 3-1 against Houston at NRG Stadium.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to clinch a playoff spot in Week 16 …
1. Baltimore will advance its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 25 games, but Arian Foster will have a season-high total against the Ravens defense. No opposing running back has even gotten close to the century mark this season as Ahmad Bradshaw of Indianapolis has the highest total of the year against the Ravens with just 68 in Week 5. However, Foster will represent the greatest test the Ravens have seen since Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was suspended for Adderall use. Both defenses will be familiar with the opposing rushing attack as the Ravens and Texans both use the zone stretch, but Houston will be a bit too predictable relying on the run due to the uncertainty at the quarterback position. Foster will rush for more yards against the Ravens than any back this season, but his total will remain south of 100 yards.
2. Daniels will catch a touchdown and have his best game of the season against his former team. The longtime Texans tight end having a strong day against his former team would be a feel-good story, but quarterback Joe Flacco went out of his way earlier in the week to say Daniels needs to be more involved in the offense. Against Jacksonville, Daniels was targeted nine times — the most he’s been thrown to since Week 9 — and caught four passes for 62 yards and his first touchdown since Week 7. The Ravens’ 17th-ranked red-zone attack remains a weakness of a strong offensive attack, but the reemergence of Daniels would be a major factor in a potential trip to the playoffs. His familiarity with the Texans’ defensive personnel will help him produce a season-high in yards, besting the 70 he had against the Colts in Week 5.
3. Watt will collect a sack and bat down a pass, but the Ravens will throw away from him and run plenty of counters to try to minimize his impact. The Texans defensive end might go down as the most disruptive defensive force the NFL has seen since Lawrence Taylor, but the Ravens can only focus on minimizing his impact as much as possible on Sunday. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will move Watt all over the defensive line, so the key is identifying where he lines up and running the play away from him. Flacco will throw to the opposite side of where Watt lines up to try to minimize his ability to use his 6-foot-5 frame to disrupt passing lanes, but running the counter is effective in slowing his motor as well as the rest of the Houston pass rush. Watt will see double-teams, chip blocks, and max protect as well, but play selection will be just as important.
4. Daryl Smith will pick up his second interception of the year to continue his strong finish to the season. A slow start and the emergence of rookie C.J. Mosley have led many to overlook how well the veteran linebacker has played in the second half of the season. An effective blitzer and still the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage, Smith could be a key factor in trying to confuse Keenum, who proved to be an aggressive passer who couldn’t handle a pass rush in eight games for the Texans last season. It’s obvious the Baltimore defense will try to pressure the young quarterback, but Smith could prove key by showing blitz up the middle before dropping into pass coverage. The secondary will have its hands full with wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins — if the latter plays — but Smith will come away with a pick with Keenum facing a heavy rush.
5. Baltimore’s advantage at the quarterback position will be the ultimate difference in a tight 23-16 win for the Ravens. Last week’s struggles against the Jaguars should remind everyone that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and the Texans remained competitive in Indianapolis last week despite veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick going down with a broken leg. Bill O’Brien’s team has talent on both sides of the ball, but it’s very difficult imagining John Harbaugh and the Ravens losing to a fourth-string quarterback under these critical circumstances. Flacco will need to stand tall against a formidable pass rush, but he’s played very well since the bye week, a trend that will continue against a mediocre secondary. It will be a tight game in Houston, but the Ravens will get some revenge for Kubiak and find a way to move to 10-5 on the season.