-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)
No. 3 Houston (10-6) at No. 2 Baltimore (12-4)
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
The Ravens await the Texans on Sunday after winning six of their last seven games, including three wins over playoff teams. But whether or not they advance to the AFC Championship game largely depends on which Baltimore Ravens team shows up.
Baltimore destroyed the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 35-7. It rushed for 170 yards and 5.5 yards per carry against the vaunted Steel Curtain. Ray Lewis and company held the Steelers to 66 yards rushing and forced seven turnovers. The tone had been set for the 2011 season, right?
However, the next weekend, Baltimore fell 26-13 to the Tennessee Titans by gaining a grand total of 229 yards. They mustered only 45 yards rushing, turned the ball over three times and couldn’t stop 36-year-old Matt Hasselbeck, who threw for 358 yards and a touchdown in the win.
Two weeks later, Baltimore embarrassed Rex Ryan and the New York Jets 34-17. The Ravens forced four turnovers and held the Jets to 150 total yards of offense. In their next game, the Ravens toppled the then-healthy (aka Matt Schaub) AFC South Champion Houston Texans 29-14 with relative ease.
However, the next weekend, Baltimore fell 12-7 to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens mustered only 146 yards of offense, 34 of which came on the ground, and were out-possessed by the Jags 36:15 to 23:45. Maurice Jones-Drew rolled up 105 yards on 30 carries in the win. It was a lackluster performance from the Ravens to say the least.
In Week 9, Baltimore once again handled the Steelers in what was the best game of the season. On the road against the defending AFC Champions, Joe Flacco played brilliant football in the final frame and tossed a game-winning touchdown with eight seconds left. But once again, the Ravens followed a great victory with a mind-boggling defeat. In Week 10, Baltimore turned the ball over three times and allowed Marshawn Lynch to churn out 167 yards from scrimmage on 37 touches in the 22-17 loss to Seattle.
Are we seeing a trend yet? After winning four straight from Week 11-Week 14 (including wins over San Francisco and Cincinnati), the Ravens laid an inexplicable egg in San Diego. The Chargers gained 415 yards of offense in the 34-14 pounding of the eventual AFC North Champs. The loss could have cost the Ravens the division, and a first-round bye, had the Steelers not also lost that weekend to the Niners.
So what’s the point?
If the right Ravens team shows up on Sunday, Texans’ rookie quarterback T.J. Yates won’t fare much better than Matt Schaub did back in the Week 6 victory over Houston. Baltimore held Arian Foster to his third-worst rushing performance of the season (49 yards, 3.3 ypc). And the Ravens trio will produce big numbers like they did in the first meeting — Flacco threw for 305 yards, Ray Rice totaled 161 yards from scrimmage and Anquan Boldin caught 8 passes for 132 yards. If the right Ravens team shows up on Sunday, the Texans won’t have much of a chance to advance to the AFC title game.
If the wrong Ravens team shows up, the Texans will have a chance. Should this happen, the Texans will have to ride Foster and Ben Tate to victory. Houston will have to control the ball and protect their inexperienced signal caller from a veteran and hostile purple defense. And Wade Phillips will have to call a masterful game on defense in an effort to play a swarming, hard-hitting brand of football.
The Ravens' four losses were to far inferior competition (with the possible exception of the Chargers). However, one thing to note is that all four head-scratching defeats came on the road. The friendly confines of MT&T Bank Stadium have been anything but warm and hospitable to the visiting team. Don’t expect that to change much in The Charm City, where there is a 30% chance of snow and a projected high of 37 degrees.
More likely than not, the Ravens will be the ones playing the hard-hitting, swarming defense, as Yates is indoctrinated into road playoff football at its highest level.
Baltimore By The Numbers
Scoring Offense: 23.6 (12th)
Passing Offense: 213.9 ypg (19th)
Rushing Offense: 124.8 ypg (10th)
3rd Down Offense: 42.4% (7th)
Giveaways: 24 (16th)
Sacks Allowed: 33.0 (12th)
Scoring Defense: 16.6 ppg (3rd)
Passing Defense: 196.3 ypg (4th)
Rushing Defense: 92.6 ypg (2nd)
3rd Down Defense: 32.1% (2nd)
Takeaways: 26 (13th)
Sacks: 48.0 (3rd)
Houston By The Numbers
Scoring Offense: 23.8 (10th)
Passing Offense: 219.1 ypg (18th)
Rushing Offense: 153.0 (2nd)
3rd Down Offense: 41.5% (8th)
Giveaways: 20 (6th)
Sacks Allowed: 33.0 (12th)
Scoring Defense: 17.4 ppg (4th)
Passing Defense: 189.7 ypg (3rd)
Rushing Defense: 96.0 ypg (4th)
3rd Down Defense: 35.8% (14th)
Takeaways: 27 (12th)
Sacks: 44.0 (6th)