The Baltimore Ravens are standing in Houston's way again, only this time without Ray Lewis and their best cornerback.
The Ravens (5-1) lost Lewis and Lardarius Webb to season-ending injuries this week, crippling blows to a defense that was already not quite what it used to be. Tackle Haloti Ngata (knee) and safety Ed Reed (shoulder) are also hurting, but linebacker Terrell Suggs may play after practicing for the first time since tearing an Achilles tendon in April.
"You can complain all you want, but nobody cares," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "Nobody is going to feel sorry for you. It's an opportunity. You know the old saying: 'When one door closes, another door opens,' right? We've all heard that since we were kids, and that's true. There are going to be opportunities for guys."
No matter who plays for Baltimore, the Texans (5-1) still see the same hard-hitting Ravens who shut them down twice last season, the second time in the playoffs.
"They've still got talent. They always have," Houston quarterback Matt Schaub said. "You've got to play smart, fundamentally sound football to beat them and you've got to keep your situations manageable, and you've got to take advantage of opportunities when you have them because you might not get any others."
Baltimore has never lost to the Texans in six meetings, and this matchup comes with potentially far-reaching implications.
The Ravens and Texans share the best record in the AFC, and both already have the inside track to their division titles. They're the only teams above .500 in the AFC and they're both unbeaten against AFC opponents, so Sunday's winner will have a leg up in possible tiebreaking scenarios.
"I know it's early in the season," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said, "but this game carries a lot of weight down the road."
The Texans are also looking to regain some swagger after a humbling 42-24 loss to Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay. Rodgers threw six touchdown passes — matching the total number that Houston allowed in the first five games — and the Packers piled up 427 yards. Houston held three of its first five opponents under 300.
"I think it's just a clunker," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "Sometimes, you have those."
Houston also showed some cracks on offense, mostly up front. Schaub was sacked three times, Arian Foster was held to 29 yards rushing, and Houston mustered only 321 total yards.
The Texans will break out their "battle red" uniforms for Sunday's game, and the kickoff can't get here soon enough.
"We're hungry to get back out there and prove ourselves," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "We know that was a poor showing from us Sunday night. We didn't play our best, so we want to get back out there and show what we're all about and that we're back on track."
Like the Ravens, Houston's defense is dealing with some significant injuries, too.
Linebacker Brian Cushing is out for the season with a torn knee ligament and backup defensive end Tim Jamison left Sunday's game with a season-ending Achilles tendon injury. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is nursing a groin injury, but Kubiak said he's optimistic that Joseph will be ready by Sunday.
"We're in a business of response," Kubiak said. "It's what our business is all about, really. You're going, you're going, you're doing things good, and all of a sudden you get it in the mouth and it's not good and you got to respond."
The Ravens' defense held Houston below 20 points in their two meetings last year, but Baltimore's offense seems to be more of a concern to Kubiak this time.
Joe Flacco leads the league in passes covering at least 25 yards (18) and ranks third in yards per attempt (8.09). Baltimore ranks eighth in total offense (385 yards per game) and leads the league in plays covering more than 20 yards (34).
If Houston's ready for that, the Ravens can turn to Ray Rice, who rushed for 101 yards in a 29-14 victory over the Texans last season. Rice has reached 100 yards from scrimmage in an NFL-best 35 games since 2009.
"They've got good people who want the ball in their hands," Kubiak said. "This group presents a double-headed monster. I mean, they can line it up and run the ball right at you. We've got two sets of things we've got to worry about instead of one strength. This team is very balanced offensively."
Baltimore's defense, meanwhile, has been shaky this year.
The Ravens rank 26th in stopping the run and in yards allowed, jeopardizing the team's streak of nine consecutive seasons ranking among the top-10 defenses. They've allowed more than 200 yards rushing in each of their last two games.
"We have to take a stand," said safety Bernard Pollard. "Two weeks in a row, 200 freaking yards rushing? We have to take a stand on what we do. We have to walk out there with pride."
Pollard is one of three former Texans now in key roles for Baltimore, joining receiver Jacoby Jones and fullback Vonta Leach. With all that's at stake, they're not thinking much about the connection.
"Like every other game," said Jones, who returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown last week. "It's another team that we have to face. That's a good team, got great talent. We have to get a W."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL