With the No. 1 seed Ravens beginning what they hope will be a Super Bowl run by hosting Houston in the divisional round on Saturday night, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Like I wrote four years ago, a fast start dims memories of Lamar Jackson’s past January struggles and what happened in 2019 while a sleepy beginning would only heighten anxiety stemming from those talking points. The last thing you want is to give an upstart team even more confidence early.
2. One of the differences between the Texans and those 2019 Tennessee Titans is Houston’s inability to run the football, which is significant against a defense whose relative weakness is stopping the run. Even if Houston gains an early lead, there’s no Derrick Henry to take over like four years ago.
3. C.J. Stroud and DeMeco Ryans became the third rookie quarterback and head coach combination in the Super Bowl era to win a playoff game. Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh advanced to the 2008 AFC championship game. The Jets did the same a year later. Houston better have Baltimore’s attention.
4. Either Mark Andrews is going to play Saturday or the Ravens have done a good job making it look that way, which is certainly a possibility. If he’s activated, I’d expect the three-time Pro Bowl tight end to be on a limited snap count for third downs and red-zone opportunities.
5. As impressive as they were last week, the Texans have been pedestrian on the road with Sharp Football tracking them 18th in points per game, 20th in points per drive, and 22nd in touchdown rate per drive. Stroud and this offense haven’t faced a road challenge like this.
6. Stroud is having a tremendous rookie season and looks like a star, so how critical is it to pressure him? The Ohio State product ranked second in passing DVOA without pressure compared to 17th with pressure, the biggest drop-off of any starter. The Ravens can’t let the 22-year-old get comfortable.
7. Baltimore unveiled its offensive tackle rotation coming out of the Week 13 bye despite a daunting remaining schedule, so there’s little reason to think it won’t continue. Slowing down Texans edge rushers Will Anderson and Jonathan Greenard will be a formidable test for Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses.
8. One of the pivotal matchups to the Texans’ chances will be tight ends Dalton Schultz and Brevin Jordan against Pro Bowl linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen over the middle. The few offenses who had some success against Baltimore were able to find production there to help stay on schedule.
9. Meanwhile, the leaky Houston pass defense has struggled against tight ends, ranking 31st in receiving yards allowed per game in the regular season and surrendering a combined 11 catches for 158 yards to Cleveland tight ends last week. Regardless of whether Andrews plays, Isaiah Likely could have a big night.
10. Houston turned the ball over a league-low 14 times, a big reason for its seven-win improvement from 2022. However, PFF tracked the Texans with the eighth-lowest lost fumble rate and a would-be nine interceptions dropped by opponents. This Ravens defense should still have opportunities to reverse the Texans’ turnover luck.
11. While Jackson’s return to postseason play is obviously dominating the headlines, Brandon Stephens will make his playoff debut after an illness sidelined him at the end of last season. With Marlon Humphrey out, Stephens and Ronald Darby will have their hands full trying to slow down explosive receiver Nico Collins.
12. Based on secondary ticket prices, you sense many are waiting for the possibility of the AFC title game being played in Baltimore for the first time since Jan. 3, 1971. A cold, windy forecast isn’t helping demand, but this will be only the eighth home playoff game in franchise history.
Prediction: While the Ravens have been trying to maintain their edge since locking up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage three weeks ago, the AFC South champion Texans have won three straight games to earn the right to be one of the conference’s final four teams. With Stroud playing well above his experience level, Houston offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik could give Mike Macdonald and the Baltimore defense one of their better chess matches of the season. That said, the Ravens are the better team across the board, and any anxiety surrounding this matchup is more about what happened in the divisional round four years ago than the Texans themselves. Houston has enough talent to make this game uncomfortable, but a poor ground game and below-average pass defense make it difficult to envision Ryans’ team playing the complete 60 minutes required to pull off the upset without Baltimore making uncharacteristic mistakes. Now 27 years old and on the cusp of winning his second MVP award in five seasons, Jackson is healthy and eager to change the story about his postseason shortcomings after a three-year wait. He and the Ravens will be up to the task for a 31-20 victory to advance to the AFC championship game for the first time in 11 years, ending the longest conference title game drought in franchise history.