The Houston Texans made the most of their first playoff appearance in franchise history last week, stomping the Bengals 31-10 at home, but the climb to the Super Bowl gets a lot steeper as they head to Baltimore. The big, bad Ravens are 15-1 at home over the last two seasons, giving up just 16 points a game at M&T Bank Stadium.
This is another rematch from the regular season, as the Ravens beat the Texans 29-14 in Week 6. Baltimore scored in every quarter of that contest and held the Texans to less than 300 total yards of offense (including just 93 rushing yards). T.J. Yates was inactive for that game, as Matt Schaub was still at the controls. Now the rookie quarterback will be staring across the line of scrimmage at Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed, and he'll have to deal with a Baltimore crowd that hasn't seen a home playoff game since before Joe Flacco arrived in town. The place will be jumping and crowd noise will definitely be an issue for the young QB.
Baltimore beat four playoff teams in their stadium this year -- Pittsburgh, Houston, Cincinnati and San Francisco -- holding them to an average of 13 points per game. I expect the Ravens to take care of business in much the same way this week, knowing that a win combined with a Patriot loss would put the conference championship game in Baltimore.
Here are the three critical questions in this AFC divisional matchup:
Can the Texans' defense contain Ray Rice?
Play Baltimore away from M&T Bank Stadium, and Ray Rice can be neutralized, which helps explain the Ravens' 4-4 road record this season. Unfortunately for the Texans, this game will take place in Baltimore, where Rice averages 26 touches, 132 yards, and 1.5 touchdowns per game. If the Texans can't contain Rice, they'll lose.
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When these teams faced off in M&T Bank Stadium back in October, Rice had 28 touches for 161 yards, but he didn't score a touchdown. The Texans' defense hasn't given up a rushing touchdown in their last five road games. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will game plan around the Ray Rice attack. The problem Phillips has to deal with is first-and-10 situations. The Ravens are 47 percent pass and will let Joe Flacco throw the ball against run looks by the defense. Houston's first-down run defense is excellent, giving up just 3.89 yards per carry, so I expect some significant play action passing on first down with Rice being the check-down receiver. Look for him as a runner more often on second down.
Can T.J. Yates handle the pressure?
Yates was supposed to spend this year developing and learning the NFL game. But when the top two quarterbacks (Schaub and Matt Leinart) went down with injuries, he had to step up. He is 3-3 as a starter, but it is clear the Texans are trying to limit his responsibilities. In his six starts (with one game shortened by injury), he has had 139 pass attempts and has been sacked once every nine attempts. The Ravens' defense is going to make it a priority to slow down the Texans' run game early and force Yates to beat them. Yates has just four touchdown passes as a starter. Andre Johnson missed the Week 6 loss to the Ravens, but it may be very difficult to get him the ball Sunday afternoon. Baltimore has recorded 33 of its 48 sacks at home, which equates to just over four per game. Lewis and company got to Schaub four times earlier this year, and it could be worse for Yates this time around.
What Yates needs more than anything else is major output from Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Don't count on it, though. The talented duo combined for just 90 yards and zero touchdowns on 24 carries in the first meeting with the Ravens. Baltimore's run defense allowed just 83 yards per game at home this year, surrendering only three rushing touchdowns. (Baltimore's only given up five rushing touchdowns over its last 16 games at home.) Those kinds of numbers will certainly put some pressure on the QB, and Yates may need a 300-yard passing day to beat the Ravens. Not likely.
Who is the X-factor in this game?
Keep in mind that since 2005, home teams in the divisional round are 12-12. You must look for the X-factors in these games or you may be surprised by the end result. Did anyone see the Tebow X-factor before the Steelers game last week?
For the Texans, it might be Andre Johnson. The veteran stud looked rusty early in the game last week, but finished with 90 yards and a touchdown. After missing the first Ravens game, he's finally healthy and ready to go. No team threw more than one touchdown pass in a game against the Ravens this year, providing Johnson quite a challenge. But when healthy, he's extremely capable of multiple touchdowns, even with Yates throwing the ball. With only two touchdown catches during an injury-riddled regular season, everything points to Andre not having a big day. But he did score last week, so maybe he's ready to get it done.
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For the Ravens, it has to be Joe Flacco. He is routinely criticized in Baltimore, but this young quarterback has led his team to the postseason every year of his career and boasts a 4-3 road playoff record. Now he finally gets to play one at home for the first time, and he gets top target Anquan Boldin back. Flacco has seven touchdown passes in his last four home games and I expect him to be razor sharp in this one.