Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Divisional Playoff Preview – Texans (11-6) @ Ravens (12-4)

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The Houston Texans, fresh off their first playoff victory in franchise history – a 31-10 spanking of the Cincinnati Bengals – come to Baltimore for the second time this year hoping to earn a berth in the AFC Championship game. As I said several times this week, the Texans are to be commended for their first ever postseason win, and for doing it with a third string quarterback. Beating the Bengals, though, a team that hasn’t won a playoff game themselves since 1990 – twelve years before the Texans even existed – is one thing. Coming into M&T Bank Stadium and beating a postseason tested veteran group such as these Ravens? That’s another thing altogether.

Joe Flacco

Joe has been taking some heat this week for speaking out about all the heat he takes.

I’ll wait while you go read that again.

Back with me? Ok, good.

I don’t really care about all that extracurricular stuff; my feelings on our quarterback are well documented around these parts. You want to shut up the critics, Joe? Here’s your chance.

For all the handwringing that was done earlier this year about how the Ravens’ offense is inept against 4-3 defenses, I sure haven’t heard anybody citing the Texans’ 3-4 as a Ravens’ advantage coming into this game. While I was of the mind that it was a silly criticism at the time (and still am), the fact remains that three of the Ravens’ four losses this season (Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle) came against teams that employ a base 4-3 front. These were also teams that were able to get adequate pressure with their front four, something the Ravens’ offense severely struggled with.

Against 3-4 defenses, the Ravens were 8-1 (by my count, based off NFL.com depth charts), with the only loss coming to San Diego – a game in which the opposing offense was the key factor, as opposed to the defense.

To take it a step further, Joe Flacco is now 2-0 against Wade Phillips’ 3-4, with the other victory coming in 2008 when Phillips was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. In the two games combined, Joe was 37/58 (64%) for 454 yards, with two total touchdowns (one passing, one rushing), one interception, and two fumbles lost. The good news is that, in addition to being able to move the ball fairly effectively through the air, Joe seems to have fixed the fumbling issues he was having earlier this year. After fumbling ten times in the team’s first 11 games, Flacco has put the ball on the turf just once since Week 11, and not at all since Week 13 in Cleveland. That’s a trend that needs to continue if the Ravens are going to continue to advance towards Indianapolis.

The Texans boast the NFL’s third-ranked passing defense, but based on the fact that Flacco has had success against this and other similar systems (Pittsburgh, Arizona, to name a couple) in the past, I think the Ravens will have some success throwing the ball Sunday. Anquan Boldin will be playing in his first game since Week 15, and Cam Cameron would be wise to get Q the ball early to get him into the flow of the offense. Boldin went off against the Texans in Week 6, catching eight passes for 132 yards. He says he feels as good or better than he has felt all year, so expect Boldin to be a big part of the game plan against Houston. Flacco’s increasing chemistry with tight end Dennis Pitta will be key as well, especially on third downs.

I bring up Joe first, because both teams will likely have the same mindset on defense…

Stopping the Run

Arian Foster (1224 rushing yards, 617 receiving yards, 12 total touchdowns) vs. Ray Rice (1364 rushing yards, 704 receiving yards, 15 total touchdowns) is quite a match up on the ground. However, these two defenses were ranked #2 and #4 against the run during the regular season, so both backs will be hard pressed to find much running room. In the first match up, Rice had the better day, with 161 yards from scrimmage to Foster’s 101. If those numbers repeat themselves, the Ravens should emerge victorious. However, if Houston is to stand a chance, the two runners’ numbers will have to be much more similar to each other this time around. The best way to prevent that on Baltimore’s part is to find a way to make Houston one-dimensional.

The extra week of rest should do the Ravens good, as Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata, two of the key cogs in the B’More run defense, continue to nurse toe and thigh injuries, respectively, back to health. If Ngata especially can come out of the bye at closer to 100% and more closely resemble the player he was at the beginning of the year, he could make life hell for Foster and fellow running back Ben Tate all afternoon. Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson will be counted on to set the edge against Houston’s zone-blocking scheme, while Ngata, Cory Redding, Terrence Cody and the Ravens’ linebackers will have to be near flawless in gap discipline. Again, they did a great job the first time around – let’s hope they can repeat the performance.

Rice and Foster will be counted on to carry their teams, but with both defenses selling out to stop the opposing backs, this game could very well come down to quarterback play.

In that scenario, I like the aforementioned Flacco over his Houston counterpart.

T.J. Yates

The simple fact is that no rookie quarterback has come into Baltimore and beat the Ravens since way back in 1997 when Jake Plummer and the Cardinals pulled it off. No opposing rookie quarterback has EVER won at M&T Bank Stadium.

But I don’t want to summarily dismiss Houston based on that. Another indisputable fact is that T.J. Yates has a hell of a supporting cast around him. For one, Houston will have All-Universe wide receiver Andre Johnson back on the field. Johnson, who missed the Week 6 match up in Baltimore, torched the Ravens for 140 yards and two touchdowns when these teams met at Reliant Stadium in 2010. Obviously, he had Matt Schaub throwing him the ball in that game and not Yates, but #80 would be a threat with Kyle Boller as his quarterback. Yates and Johnson hooked up for 90 yards and a long score in Wild Card weekend.

The rookie QB out of North Carolina has made six starts and won three of those. His numbers don’t jump off the page at you, as his touchdown last week was his first since Week 14. In fact, Yates hasn’t thrown a touchdown against a team not wearing Bengals jerseys since Week 13, and three of his four career touchdown throws are against Cincinnati. Still, he hasn’t thrown an interception in three straight games, and his 97.7 passer rating last week was his lowest of those three contests.

I had a Texans fan argue with me on Twitter this week, extolling the virtues of Yates as a mobile quarterback – at least compared to Schaub. While he may in fact be a bit better at extending plays than the first-stringer, it isn’t evidenced by one key stat – sacks.

When Matt Schaub was playing this season, he was sacked on just about 5% of his dropbacks. Yates, so far, has been sacked 17 times in 6+ games, or on nearly 11% of his dropbacks. If Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee, and company can manage to get to Yates once or twice every 10 times he drops back to pass Sunday, that will add a key ingredient to the Ravens’ recipe for success.

Houston ran the ball on 17 of their 23 first down plays last week – expect them to strive for a similar ratio this week, if they can keep the game close. The key for the Ravens will be getting the Texans off schedule by stuffing the run on first or second down, and forcing Yates to move the chains with his arm. It’s Football 101, but it’s also a formula that has won the Ravens a boatload of games over the years.

Prediction

Again, all due respect to Houston and everything they’ve accomplished this season. If their run ends Sunday, though, their year will still be considered a resounding success.  The same cannot be said of the Ravens. This home playoff game is what John Harbaugh’s squad has been striving for since he came to town four seasons ago, and I have to believe this team of postseason-tested veterans, playing in their own home, where they were undefeated this year, against a rookie quarterback and a team full of playoff novices, will overwhelm the Texans in the end.

The Ravens are as healthy as they’ve been since Week 1 (no player missed practice on Wednesday or Thursday, and only Jameel McClain and Brendan Ayanbadejo were even limited), when they housed the defending AFC Champion Steelers 35-7. Ben Grubbs, Jimmy Smith, Tom Zbikowski, and others were all absent from the Week 6 win on the Baltimore side. So while the Texans are getting their superstar back, Baltimore counters with some quality talent of their own that wasn’t on the field the last time these teams met. On top of that, Texans’ tight end Owen Daniels broke his hand in last week’s game. While he is expected to play, he will be at less than 100%.

Yates is making just his seventh career start, and he has yet to face anything resembling the madhouse (or, new “World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum“) that will be M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. The rookie, at this point, would hardly be confused with the caliber of quarterbacks that have dismissed the Ravens from the playoffs the last few years (Ben Roethlisberger twice, Peyton Manning, both of whom went on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl; Can even the most homerific of Texans fans really expect to see T.J. Yates hoisting the Lamar Hunt Trophy in nine days?)

John Harbaugh teams are 4-0 following a bye week, with an average margin of victory of 18 points (all at home, including the 29-14 win over Houston in Week 6 this year).

Oh, and B’More is on an 18-1 streak at home dating back to the 2009 season.

The deck is just stacked much too high against Houston. This Ravens team feeds off the purple crowd like none before them, and I’m confident they’ll reward us for that infusion of energy with our first home playoff win since the 2000 season.

Ravens 27 Texans 13

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