The Houston Texans are coming off the first playoff victory in franchise history, but it will take another first to keep their season going.
The Texans have their eyes set on the AFC Championship game, but first they'll need to knock off the Baltimore Ravens for the first time in their 10-year existence Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in a Divisional Playoff battle between two teams led by versatile running backs and top-five defenses.
As if a matchup with the Ravens wasn't tough enough, AFC North champion Baltimore is also coming off its first postseason bye since 2006.
After capturing the AFC South title with a 10-6 regular season, Houston made its inaugural playoff appearance last Saturday against visiting Cincinnati and used an outstanding defensive effort coupled with a solid running from Arian Foster to notch a 31-10 victory.
Foster scored twice on the ground to help take the pressure off of rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, while first-year defensive end J.J. Watt turned the momentum of the game when he ripped a pass by Cincinnati's Andy Dalton out of the air and took it back 29 yards for a score with 52 seconds left in the second quarter to put Houston up for good.
Houston's defense then shut out Cincinnati in the second half in front of a Reliant Stadium-record crowd of 71,725 to get the Texans back on track after ending the regular season with three losses in a row.
"I really think just pressure," Texans linebacker Brian Cushing said when asked what keyed the defense. "I mean, the crowd couldn't have helped any more. It was just a tremendous environment in there. It was loud. You could tell [Dalton] couldn't communicate as well as he wanted to, and I think after J.J.'s interception [the noise] really got to him a little bit, and we were able to just get pressure on him after that."
Houston should have the tables turned on it this weekend as it visits Baltimore for the second time this season. The Texans made the trip to M&T Bank Stadium back on Oct. 16 and were dealt a 29-14 loss. The Ravens' third-ranked defense limited the Texans to a season low in points and total yards (293), with Foster notching just 49 yards on the ground.
Cushing thinks that the earlier trip to Baltimore should pay off for Houston on Saturday.
"Well, it's familiar. We've been there before, and it's not going to be anything new," the linebacker said. "I'm sure it'll be a little bit louder with the playoff environment. They'll be excited, coming off of a bye, but we'll be ready. Going up there, it's going to be a fun, exciting challenge, and we're ready for it."
While Baltimore's defense racked up four sacks in the first meeting, the offense also accounted for 402 yards. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 305 yards, hitting Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith for passes over 50 yards, and running back Ray Rice rush for 101 yards.
Matt Schaub was the Texans' quarterback for that matchup, but it is now Yates after season-ending injuries to Schaub and backup Matt Leinart. That transition hasn't altered Houston's game plan much, according to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
"They're running their offense," he said. "It's the same package that they ran early. T.J. Yates has got his imprint on it, but he looks very similar to the two other guys running it. And that's a credit to their coaches and the system that they run. It's a great system. Obviously, it's been successful for a number of years offensively, so he's plugged in real well."
The Ravens' earlier win over the Texans was part of the club's first-ever undefeated regular season at home. Baltimore averaged 27.4 points per game while yielding only 14.9 in its eight home tilts, and the Ravens also won six of their final seven contests this season, locking up the division and the AFC's second seed with a victory at Cincinnati on Jan. 1.
"We did what we had to do to get that first-week bye," Ravens defensive end Cory Redding said. "We came out of the back stretch 3-1, and that was our main focus. Guys are fighting on the field with big gashes down their legs and almost bruised ribs, messed-up knees and toes and ankles and hands, and yet we still fought our way. Everybody got in that game, that Cincinnati game, and just played because we knew we were fighting for a week off."
The only team in the NFL to have made the postseason in each of the past four years, the Ravens went 6-0 against playoff teams this season and have won their last 10 home games. They are looking to advance to the AFC Championship for the third time in team history and for the first time since 2008.
As previously noted, the Ravens' victory over the visiting Texans in Week 6 gave Baltimore a 5-0 advantage in the all-time series between the teams. Two of those wins have taken place at M&T Bank Stadium, with the Ravens edging Houston by a 16-15 count in the Charm City in 2005 in addition to this past October's result. The Texans did take Baltimore to overtime when the clubs faced off in Houston last season, scoring 21 straight second-half points before the Ravens ultimately regrouped to record a hard-earned 34-28 decision.
Harbaugh is 2-0 lifetime against the Texans as a head coach and owns a 4-3 career mark in the playoffs, while Kubiak won his postseason debut as a sideline boss with last week's verdict but is 0-3 in his prior encounters with both the Ravens and Harbaugh.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Even more of a factor once Schaub (2479 passing yards, 15 TD, 6 INT) went down with injury, the Texans have leaned on their run game all season and that did not change versus the Bengals last week. Foster (1224 rushing yards, 53 receptions, 12 TD) ran for 153 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, and Ben Tate (942 rushing yards, 4 TD) added another 37 yards on nine carries for Houston's second-ranked rushing offense (153.0 ypg). With Foster doing most of the heavy lifting, Yates (949 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) threw only 20 passes and completed 11 for 159 yards. One of his throws went to Andre Johnson (33 receptions, 2 TD) for a 40-yard score, and the talented wideout shook off hamstring injuries during the regular season to log five catches for 90 yards in his playoff debut. Foster continued to make plays in the passing game as well, hauling in three strikes for 29 yards. Yates also has a pair of players at the tight end position he can go to in Owen Daniels (54 receptions, 3 TD) and Joel Dreessen (28 receptions, 6 TD), while Kevin Walter (39 receptions, 3 TD) is the other wide receiver. Yates, meanwhile, is aiming to become the third quarterback to win two playoff games in his rookie season, joining Flacco (2008) and the Jets' Mark Sanchez (2009).
With fullback Lawrence Vickers in front of him, Foster will look for a better performance in this game after getting shut down earlier this season by a Ravens defense that allowed just 288.9 total yards per game. Baltimore matched an NFL record by being ranked in the league's top three in points allowed (16.6 ppg) for a fourth straight year and also permitted less than 100 yards per game on the ground for the season. While linebacker Ray Lewis (95 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and safety Ed Reed (52 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) are the club's most well- known stoppers, it was outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (70 tackles, 14 sacks, 2 INT) who led the defense all season while setting a career high in sacks. With Suggs and ends Redding (43 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Pernell McPhee (23 tackles, 6 sacks) wrecking havoc in the backfield, tackle Haloti Ngata (64 tackles, 5 sacks) and linebacker Jameel McClain (84 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) led the charge in hauling down ball carriers. Former Texans safety Bernard Pollard (75 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) played well alongside Reed, while Lardarius Webb (67 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INT) led the corners.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
The Ravens have a similar offense to the Texans in the fact that they count on Rice (1364 rushing yards, 76 receptions, 15 TD) to run the ball and make plays in the passing game. Rice, who even has a former Texan blocking for him in fullback Vonta Leach, led the NFL with a career-high 2,068 yards from scrimmage this season and set a club record in touchdowns while also leading the Ravens in catches. Flacco (3610 passing yards, 20 TD, 12 INT) counts on Rice to keep defenses in check, and that helps open up plays for Boldin (57 receptions, 3 TD) and Smith (50 receptions, 7 TD) down the field. Boldin is set to return after missing the last two games following knee surgery, while Smith ranked third among NFL rookies with 841 receiving yards. Flacco turned in his third straight season of 3,500 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, falling just 13 yards shy of his career high. With the former first-round pick under center, the Ravens ranked 15th in total offense (338.7 YPG). Baltimore also found a pair of players to replace free-agent departure Todd Heap at tight end, using both Ed Dickson (54 receptions, 5 TD) and Dennis Pitta (40 receptions, 3 TD) and getting good production out of each.
Houston's defense got to the level-headed Dalton last weekend to force three turnovers, the biggest coming from the rookie Watt (56 tackles, 5.5 sacks). Cornerback Johnathan Joseph (44 tackles, 4 INT) and safety Danieal Manning (59 tackles, 2 INT) -- a pair of free agent pickups this offseason -- also had interceptions, while Watt had one of four Houston sacks in addition to his pick. Cushing (114 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) logged a team-high eight tackles for a Houston defense that ranked second in yards allowed (285.7 ypg) and fourth in points given up (17.4 ppg) during the regular season. Manning and Joseph combined for 13 tackles in last week's win, while defensive end Antonio Smith (25 tackles, 6.5 sacks) had five tackles and a sack. Rookie linebacker Brooks Reed (45 tackles, 6 sacks) also got to the quarterback and is part of an strong four-man unit that also includes DeMeco Ryans (64 tackles) on the inside and outside starter Connor Barwin (47 tackles, 11.5 sacks) and has excelled despite losing Mario Williams to a season-ending injury early in the year. Kareem Jackson (42 tackles, 1 INT) starts next to Joseph, while former corner Glover Quin (77 tackles) is the other safety in a secondary that nabbed 17 picks during the regular season.
Manning and Sherrick McManis share kick return duties for the Texans, though neither got a chance to bring one back versus the Bengals thanks to three touchbacks. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones, meanwhile, handles the punts and did have one touchdown among his 49 regular-season returns. Kicker Neil Rackers got just one field goal chance last weekend and made good from 39 yards out, and missed only one try from inside 40 yards during the regular season. Veteran punter Matt Turk (42.7 avg.) was called back into duty when the Texans lost youngster Brett Hartmann to a torn ACL last month, and the 43-year-old came through with a 50.2 average on five punts versus the Bengals.
Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff logged a career-high 122 points this season despite missing a game due to a calf injury. He did miss five of his six tries from 50 yards or longer, however. Punter Sam Koch averaged a career-best 46.5 yards per punt and stuck 21-of-73 kicks inside the 20-yard line, while Webb averaged 10 yards per punt return and took one to the end zone earlier this season. He will now team with Tom Zbikowski to return kicks following a knee injury to primary returner David Reed in Week 16.
Despite their opposite reputations as an offensive threat (Houston) and defensive powerhouse (Baltimore), the Texans and Ravens are pretty similar teams when the numbers are compared. Both ranked middle-of-the-road on offense and rely strongly on their running backs, while the two clubs were stingy in allowing yards and points, ranking right next to one another in both categories. The deciding factors in this game should be experience and home field. The Ravens excel playing in Baltimore and already own a home win over the Texans. On top of that, key members like Flacco, Rice and Reed are all playoff-tested, while Lewis is a former Super Bowl MVP.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 21, Texans 13