It’s rematch weekend in the NFL Playoffs and the encounter between the Baltimore Ravens and the Houston Texans is arguably the most intriguing games and the toughest to pick. Even though the Texans have been hit by injuries, both teams are built on very similar models and matchup very well. Both run the ball well, play stifling defense, and have a quarterback who is just surviving and not making the mistakes to throw their team off course. The Ravens maintained their momentum down the stretch but have taken a week off while the Texans stumbled into the playoffs, but have momentum going into this game after a comfortable victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Wildcard Weekend. This game could not be more finely balanced.
The Ravens have the knowledge and mental advantage of having beaten the Texans at home once already this season under their first-string quarterback Matt Schaub, but the Texans were without Andre Johnson on that day. Where ever you look, these two teams are nip and tuck and could be decided by the smallest of margins as neither team seems likely to give up much. A nervy start by the Texans similar to their open last weekend could hurt them while the Ravens starting slow off of the bye week could have the same effect. Let’s take a look at some key matchups that could decide whether the Texans take their first road playoff victory just a week after their first at home, or if the Ravens get their first home playoff victory in more than a decade.
Last Meeting: Baltimore 29 – Houston 14 (Week 6)
These two first met back in Week 6 with the Ravens coming out comfortable victors by a two-touchdown margin. The Ravens put up more than 400 total yards in the game with Joe Flacco topping 300 through the air, Ray Rice registering his first 100-yard ground game since Week 1 while adding another 60 through the air. Perhaps the key matchup to take from this first contest, though, was the success that Anquan Boldin had against the Texans’ secondary–and in particular, Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Boldin was 6-for-6 for 105 yards in Joseph’s coverage, comfortably Joseph’s worst statistical game of the season. Can the Ravens have similar success against Joseph this weekend?
Hold the Line
The playoffs bring the best teams together and this weekend pairs, in a one-on-one matchup, two of this season’s elite performers in the shape of Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda (+27.6 overall) and Texans rookie left defensive end JJ Watt (+28.7 overall). Yanda ended the season battling injury while Watt enters this game off of a big performance (including a pick-six) against the Bengals, so the momentum in this encounter would appear to favor the former Wisconsin Badger. Watt was kept quiet in the first game, registering only two tackles, one of which was a stop, while Yanda had another solid game. On the season, the Ravens picked up 5.9 yards per carry off right guard (1.3 yards per carry more than the league average) on 48 carries, similar success will require Yanda and underperforming RT Michael Oher to raise their game this weekend and put an end to Watt’s strong string of performances. Watt hasn’t graded negatively overall since the first game between these two back in Week 6.
Both of these squads feature excellent running backs and excellent run defenses, if one can overcome the other, that could prove decisive, but more likely it’s the returning receiver who can have the bigger impact. Texans receiver Andre Johnson marked his first playoff game last weekend–while still working his way back from injury–with a decisive touchdown targeting injured Bengal corner Adam Jones and he will aim for more big plays this weekend. The last time Johnson faced the Ravens was in Week 14 of the 2010 season. He picked up 140 yards on nine catches that day along with two scores. Needless to say, the Ravens will be desperate for returning top receiver Anquan Boldin to put in the big game this week as he did in Week 6. Boldin is reported to be “practicing without limitations” this week and healthier than he has been all season. If this isn’t posturing for the media, this is big news for the Ravens who have lacked that consistent possession target without Boldin in recent weeks. The Ravens have got by without him but Boldin is the one receiver who you would trust to make consistent gains against any of the Texans corners and having him at full strength adds a crucial dimension to the Ravens’ offense that could prove the difference in their first home playoff game since 2006.
Winning on the Edge
This matchup is the game that keeps on giving. Watt and Yanda provide one battle in the trenches while, when the Houston offense is on the field, we will be treated to a matchup between the PFF All-Pro second team left tackle and one of our first team All-Pro defensive ends. This is, of course, the duel between Houston left tackle Duane Brown (+10.7 pass blocking) and Baltimore DE/LB Terrell Suggs (+10.3 pass rushing). Brown’s steady progression since he entered the league in 2008 has culminated in this season comfortably being his best as a pro. He is yet to yield a sack this season, though his worst pass-protecting day of the year came against the Ravens in their prior meeting. Back in Week 6, Brown yielded a hit and five pressures to the Ravens’ defense and a similar performance this week could prove deadly to Texans’ third-string quarterback TJ Yates. Four of those pressures came against Suggs who continues to build a reputation as one of the league’s most fearsome and consistent defenders. Suggs has become the on-field spark in the Ravens’ front seven and how he fares against the Texans’ fine pair of tackles will be a major factor in any success Baltimore has in shutting down Houston’s offense that surged back to life against the Bengals.