The lack-of-respect narrative for the T.J. Yates-era Texans may finally be changing. Of the four playoff underdogs this weekend, the Texans (+7.5) are labeled by oddsmakers as the second-most likely to pull an upset.
The only team higher, San Francisco (+3.5), is playing at home.
The newfound respect is partly a result of Houston's 31-10 thrashing of the Bengals, but also due to a team in Baltimore (12-4) that, while good, has exploitable weaknesses.
Both the Ravens and the Texans are led by elite defenses and rushing attacks. Both have excellent line play. But while the Texans have a rookie at quarterback, Yates has a higher average QB rating (82.9) than Baltimore's Joe Flacco (80.9), who is in the midst of his worst year since his 2008 rookie campaign.
Much like last week, when the Texans went against Cincinnati rookie Andy Dalton, the Texans somehow have another opponent without a clear advantage at their most shaky position. That gives them a very real chance.
Then again, Flacco played one of his better games of the season in week 6 against the Texans, when the Ravens took them down, 29-14, in Baltimore. And that was with Matt Schaub in the lineup.
Here are five key factors to determine whether the Texans can turn the tables.
5. Throw deep early Going in, we know the veteran Raven defense will have two initial priorities -- stuffing the run and pressuring Yates. On offense, the Texans will have the services of Andre Johnson, who didn't play in the earlier matchup. To loosen the Ravens defense and catch them off guard, a deep ball or two may be called for early on. Especially considering that the Texans head into the game with offensive momentum, while the Ravens could have rust from not playing in two weeks.
Might this result in an Ed Reed interception? Possibly. But one enormous positive to Yates's tenure as a starting QB is that he hasn't been easily rattled following turnovers (or near-turnovers). Furthermore, any deep interception should be no different than a punt, in terms of yardage.
On the other hand, if a deep pass is successful and nets the Texans an early lead, it could be a game-changer. Flacco has thrown an average of 39 times in Baltimore defeats, with the Ravens showing a tendency to abandon the running game when playing from behind. An increased dependence on Flacco would likely benefit the Texans, given his ongoing struggles.
4. Don't overreact to Torrey Smith hype Baltimore's speedy rookie receiver garners a lot of attention, with some labeling it a "matchup nightmare" for the Texans and others claiming Smith offers the deep threat the Ravens have long needed to win a Super Bowl. The results, however, aren't all that impressive. Sure, Smith's 50 catches and 7 touchdowns are respectable. But these Ravens are not a deep-passing team. In fact, Flacco's 6.7 yards-per-attempt average is the lowest of his career.
In reality, the Baltimore passing offense is about moving the chains, with veteran Anquan Boldin leading the receivers in catches and yards despite missing the season's final two games. (Boldin also caught a team-high eight passes for 132 yards against the Texans in week 6.) That's who stud Houston cornerback Johnathan Joseph should spend most of his time against in coverage. Likewise, linebackers Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans will need to closely watch running back Ray Rice (76 catches) and tight end Ed Dickson (54) coming out of the backfield.
It's not that Smith is an afterthought, but the world won't end if Kareem Jackson lines up against him in coverage from time to time. Smith isn't the game-changer that many make him out to be, and the Texans were able to frequently pressure Flacco in their prior meeting, limiting his time to throw deep. On third downs, locating Boldin and Rice is far and away the top priority.
3. Win the time-of-possession battle The Texans defended Rice, Ricky Williams and the Baltimore rushing attack well in their first matchup...until the fourth quarter. By then, the defense looked gassed and Rice had carries of 9, 13, 7 and 27 yards in a six-minute stretch. Williams punctuated a particularly imposing drive with a four-yard touchdown, giving Baltimore an insurmountable 26-14 lead with four minutes to go.
Even with the fourth-quarter breakdown, the Ravens averaged just 3.8 yards per carry for the game. That reflects how well the Texans stopped the run until wearing down. Of the Texans' six second-half drives on offense, one went longer than six plays. Three ended without a first down, and only one netted points. The Texans held the ball for just over 27 minutes overall, with an even lower proportion in the second half.
That needs to change Sunday, particularly considering that Baltimore enters with a week's rest that the Texans did not receive. The Raven offense generally goes as Rice goes, and for most of week 6, the Texans limited his productivity. But for it to last four quarters, the Houston offense must find ways to use clock and stay on the field for longer drives, allowing the defense rest.
One solution could be more use of fullback/tight end James Casey. Casey missed the first game against the Ravens with a pectoral injury, but he excels at short catches out of the backfield and can be difficult for aggressive defenses, like Baltimore, to account for in coverage.
2. Find ways into field goal range when in Baltimore territory The game largely came down to offensive efficiency in the first go-round, as one would expect with two elite defenses. The Texans had three drives stall out and end in punts between the Baltimore 35- and 45-yard lines, when they were within a mere five yards or so of field-goal range. Another possession died when Arian Foster was stuffed (albeit with a blatant facemask that wasn't called) on 4th-and-1 at the 20.
Meanwhile, the Ravens scored 15 points (appropriately, the game's final margin) on five Billy Cundiff field goals, including three of 40 yards or more. Both teams ended the game with two touchdowns. The Ravens, however, came out victorious because they were efficient enough to find ways into field goal range and tack on additional points when Houston could not. With points likely at a premium, the Texans should think field-goal range first.
1. Don't panic if playing from behind The Ravens have shown a distinct tendency to allow opponents back in the game after a fast start. In week 16 against the Browns, the Ravens stormed out to a 17-0 lead in Baltimore by the mid-point of the second quarter. From there, they scored a mere three points. In the second half, Cleveland cut the 20-0 lead to 20-14, and actually had the ball with five minutes left and a chance to win. They couldn't finish the comeback, but the Browns aren't the Texans, either.
In week 17 against the Bengals, Baltimore jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead before struggling to move the ball for much of the second half. Cincinnati closed the lead to 17-13 and had again moved into Baltimore territory in the fourth quarter, but an ensuing Jermaine Gresham fumble stemmed the tide.
There's also the matter of the divisional playoffs a year ago, when the Ravens led 21-7 at halftime -- only to wilt in the second half against the eventual AFC champion Steelers.
The Ravens are a confident bunch in Baltimore and rightly so, considering they went 8-0 there in the regular season. It's certainly possible they could ride that confidence to a fast start, as they did in week 6. In that game, the Ravens marched 97 yards in 16 plays on their first possession to take a 7-0 lead. But the Texans settled in, used a steady diet of Foster and Ben Tate to slow the momentum and had a legitimate chance to steal the game in the fourth quarter.
The Texans could easily have a similar chance to win come Sunday. To do so, it's imperative that coach Gary Kubiak remain dedicated to his plan no matter the momentum.