Two rising young QBs square off in Sunday's marquee matchup
Sunday’s game between the Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens will be one of the regular season’s marquee matchups, and a possible playoff preview, as two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and most dynamic playmakers square off.
Deshaun Watson and the Texans (6-3) were off last week after trouncing division foe Jacksonville and squashing Minshew Mania for good, 26-3, two weeks ago. Despite a banged-up defense, Houston has rattled off wins in four of its last five games and leads the AFC South by a single game.
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens (7-2) are fresh off a 49-13 thumping of the Bengals and currently sit atop the AFC North by two games. Baltimore has won five in a row as Jackson and the Ravens offense continue to put up league-leading numbers. With both teams leading their respective divisions, a win for either squad would go a long way toward achieving home-field advantage in the playoff picture.
Houston at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 17 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Lamar Jackson
The former three-star recruit turned Heisman winner has been the NFL’s most exciting player this season — and arguably the best. After last week’s performance against Cincinnati (15-of-17 passing, 223 yards, 3 TDs), Jackson has firmly placed his name in the MVP mix. He is only the second player in NFL history with two games in the same season (also Week 1 vs. Miami) with a perfect passer rating (158.3) and the first since Ben Roethlisberger in 2007.
Jackson has been the catalyst for the NFL's top-scoring offense (33.3 ppg), and he’s getting the job done in a myriad of ways. Through the air: 2,036 yards, 15 TDs, 5 INTs, 75.1 Total QB rating (fifth). On the ground: 702 yards (12th), 6 TDs (seventh) 6.6 ypc (first).
While Jackson’s raw numbers are attention-grabbing, his athleticism and intuition also help him stand out and make the Ravens' offense fly. His footwork in the pocket is as accelerated and deliberate as we’ve ever seen in the league and complement his quick-trigger arm perfectly. Jackson’s ability to set up his blockers and dodge incoming defenders with his quick-twitch intuition has led to big plays for Baltimore all season long — as evidenced by his video-game-like 47-yard TD run against Cincinnati last week.
John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman should be applauded for creating a scheme that allows Jackson to use his special skill set to keep defenses completely guessing and the Baltimore offense rolling. This week, Jackson faces a Houston defense that has been plagued by injuries all season long and that lacks much of a pass rush without J.J. Watt. Look for Jackson to take shots downfield with Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (16.2 avg.) against the Texans’ thinned-out secondary.
2. Deshaun Watson
It's no secret that the Houston Texans go only as far as Deshaun Watson carries them. And this season, Watson has been humming, posting career highs in passer rating (107.1), completion percentage (70.2) and passing yards per game (270.2). The 24-year-old Watson has found his groove as a passer and a leader, and the Texans are reaping the benefits as they inch closer toward a second consecutive AFC South banner.
It’s also no secret that Houston has struggled to protect its star quarterback the last several seasons, but things are improving. This season, Watson has been sacked, hurried and knocked down on 22 percent of his dropbacks — 10 percentage points less often than a season ago. Compared to 2018, he has been sacked five fewer times and taken three fewer hits per game through the first nine games.
This week, Watson and Co. take on a Ravens defense that doesn’t attack the QB well (16 sacks) but thrives on the big play, having already scored five defensive touchdowns this season, including two a week ago against the Bengals.
3. Can Houston’s D keep up?
An immovable force meets an unstoppable object on Sunday when the Ravens’ top-ranked rushing attack (197 ypg) collides with the Texans' third-ranked rush defense (84 yards per game). But the Ravens’ running game isn’t something the Texans have seen before. Baltimore will mix in misdirection, run-pass options, triple-options, and even their new “Heisman package” that features three former winners in Jackson, running back Mark Ingram and backup QB Robert Griffin III. Baltimore’s whole idea is sleight of hand, never letting opposing defenses know where the next counter punch is coming from.
Even if the Texans' vaunted run defense can keep the Ravens in check, slowing down the Baltimore passing game is a whole other animal. If Houston’s plan is to take away the big-play ability of “Hollywood” Brown, Jackson will target his tight ends underneath, especially Mark Andrews (44 rec., 11.9 avg., 5 TDs). Houston’s secondary has been the walking wounded since the preseason and has allowed the fourth-most yards per game through the air this season (277 yards, 18 TDs).
Hopefully, Sunday’s matchup will deliver on the hype. If both Watson and Jackson continue their high level of play from the last five weeks, it could end up being a classic. I think this game is close until the very end, but give me Jackson and the Ravens' opportunistic defense by a feather in a shootout.
Prediction: Ravens 34, Texans 32
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.