Where: Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
When: Sunday, October 21 at 1 p.m. ET
On TV: CBS
On radio: Sirius XM 94 and 137
Live streaming: NFL Audio Pass
Betting odds: Texans (-7)
Two teams alone boast winning records in the AFC, and this week they will face each other with the conference lead at stake. The Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens both stand at 5-1, looking down on other AFC teams, all of whom claim 3-3 records or worse. On Sunday in Houston, an AFC leader will be crowned... temporarily.
The storyline is set, with Houston coming off of a beatdown at home from the Green Bay Packers, and the Ravens edging one out against Houston's neighbors, the Dallas Cowboys. The Ravens suffered key losses on Sunday. Iconic linebacker Ray Lewis suffered a fully torn triceps and shutdown corner Lardarius Webb tore his ACL. Neither will finish the year.
The Ravens enter Sunday's challenge uncharacteristically: with a top ten offense and a struggling defense. Meanwhile, the Texans field one of the most balanced teams in the NFL. Coming off of an embarrassing performance against Green Bay and an all-time 0-6 record against Baltimore, the Texans would appear to be primed to make a statement.
Keys to the game:
Can the Ravens newly dominant offense perform on the road?
NFL analyst Brian Billick, who coached the Ravens to their 2000 Super Bowl win, said that even with the key defensive losses, the Ravens Super Bowl hopes are not dead. His reasoning is that Joe Flacco and the offense can put up the points to win games. This theory will be put to the test on Sunday, and it will take a season anomaly to prove him right.
While Flacco and his ripe arsenal of weapons have looked strong this season, they've also had the luxury of four homes games in six weeks. On the road, the unit has struggled. Flacco has thrived in the Ravens new up-tempo offense, but he has failed to bring the impressive pace and production to opposing teams houses.
When the Ravens have abandoned the hurry-up offense, as they did on the road against Philadelphia and Kansas City, they have failed to put points on the board. If the Baltimore offense can't adapt its no-huddle/sugar huddle to away games, their chances of maintaining a lead in the conference, or even their division, are slim.
Will Arian Foster work his magic on the Ravens weak rushing defense?
Arian Foster was just 19 yards short of Jamaal Charles as the leading rusher in the NFL after game five. Why? Because Charles pulled out 140 yards rushing against the Ravens that week. Now Foster, indisputably one of the best running backs in the league, will test the Baltimore defense for himself.
The Ravens have given up back to back games of over 200 yards rushing, and even before the bleeding started, there were concerns about the run defense. Foster poses major problems as he is a large, physical rusher, and the Ravens defense has struggled to make tackles this year.
Foster's prospects against the Ravens have only increased with the season-ending injury to Ray Lewis. The Ravens stand by their “next man up” philosophy, but the loss of Lewis can't be quantified. At the same time, the injury to 37-year-old Lewis opens the door for the younger, faster Danelle Ellerbe. While Lewis' command of the game will be a gaping hole in the leadership of the front seven, Ellerbe is now faced with the task of providing what Lewis, perhaps, could not: physical dominance.
Can the Ravens secondary rebound from the loss of Lardarius Webb?
According to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, Lardarius Webb was the best cornerback in the league. While pundits have not been ready to confirm Harbaugh's assertion, there is no question that Webb has been one of the top corners in the league. The fourth year cornerback has not allowed a touchdown catch in two years, and has only allowed four catches this season.
Stepping up to replace Webb, 2011first-round draft pick Jimmy Smith will have to step his game up. Many have labeled Smith as a disappointment as he has failed to supplant Carey Williams for a starting position. In preseason games, Smith gave up key plays on apparent technical errors. Now, it is up to the second year corner to prove he can propel his team to victory.
In addition to the loss of Webb, future Hall of Famer Ed Reed dropped a bombshell this week with the news that he is suffering from a torn labrum, a shoulder injury that typically takes six weeks to heal. Reed has not been on the Ravens' injury report, and his presence on the field is especially important after the loss of Lewis.
Matt Schaub and Joe Flacco both entered their fifth seasons with high hopes, and both have saddled up those hopes to the tune of a 5-1 record for their team. Schaub and Flacco have uncannily similar numbers for the year, each with eight touchdowns to four interceptions. Flacco has thrown for more yards, and Schaub has a slightly higher completion percentage.
Flacco has the stronger arm and more “big game” experience. He also has a wider array of weapons, with veteran Anquan Boldin, speedsters Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, and two complementary tight ends in sure-handed Dennis Pitta and physically imposing Ed Dickson. Running back Ray Rice is also a solid target for Flacco.
Houston's offensive line faltered against Green Bay, giving up three sacks. However, prior to the week six loss to the Packers, the Texans' line had only surrendered three sacks total, and they are still considered to be one of the strongest in the league. Flacco's line has struggled to give him time, but held up against Demarcus Ware and the Cowboys last week.
Arian Foster and Ray Rice are two of the best running backs in the league, and each of their teams relies on them heavily. Foster runs behind a stronger offensive line, while Rice makes his way behind one of the top fullbacks in the NFL in Vonta Leach.
The Ravens offense has been pass heavy throughout the first six weeks, but Rice has been getting his touches in the receiving game and has been a go-to running the ball on the goal line. Foster is a downhill threat, who is hard to bring down. He excels moving sideline to sideline and can explode from anywhere in the backfield.
The Texans balanced offense has struggled to get their rushing yards, however, averaging 3.8 yards per carry (24th in the NFL.)
The loss of Lardarius Webb looms large for the Ravens. Cornerback Carey Williams has three interceptions in three games, but has been picked on by opposing offenses and given up yards.
Now, offenses will switch their focus to test Jimmy Smith, who will start in Webb's absence. Smith has seen his share of playing time this season as the Ravens have spent significant time in the nickel formation. Veteran free agent acquisition Corey Graham will now slide into the nickel role. The Ravens ranked 22th in passing defense prior to the loss of Webb.
Houston has plenty of talent on the defensive side. Cornerback Jonathan Joseph is one of the best in the game. Joseph sat out of practice this week with a groin injury and head coach Gary Kubiak said that the corner will be an “end-of-the-week decision.” Houston defensive end J.J. Watt has factored into their passing defense, as he has developed a knack for batting down passes.
Houston is ranked 7th in passing defense, but looked shaky against the Packers. The Texans gave up 338 passing yards and Aaron Rodgers threw for six touchdowns. Whether the performance was an aberration or a case of the Houston secondary being exposed remains to be seen.
The Ravens 26th ranked rushing defense was mauled in consecutive weeks. Last Sunday, five different Cowboys running backs had their way with the Ravens front seven. Baltimore's defensive line has been getting pushed back, and the entire defense has struggled to tackle. The Ravens had a whopping 14 missed tackles against Dallas.
Houston's rushing defense, ranked 7th in the league, has been solid. The season-ending injury to inside linebacker Brian Cushing hurts their rushing defense, as he would be assigned to cover explosive running backs. Replacement 31-year-old Bradie James lacks the speed to cover top backs.
The Ravens ended a 6-0 regular season losing streak to the New England Patriots earlier this year, and now Houston will try to do the same against the Ravens. Baltimore has struggled in their two road games in 2012, as their offense has not been able to replicate the strong performances they've put up at home.
However, the loss of Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb may have the effect of pulling the defense closer together. It remains to be seen whether the Baltimore defense lacks talent or simply has failed to come into their own. The Ravens defense plays best with a chip on their shoulder, and embraces the underdog role.
Safety Bernard Pollard said this week that the defense was “pissed off,” and defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he felt “sickened” by their performance. The Ravens defense has focused heavily on technique in practice this week, and it would be a surprise to see a repeat of the poor tackling they exhibited against Dallas.
Perhaps most significantly, the Ravens tend to play “up” or “down” to competition. Houston represents the most complete and balanced team Baltimore has faced this year, and oddly, that might be bad news for Houston.
Prediction: Houston 24, Baltimore 20