Texans (11-6) at Ravens (12-4)
Sunday, 1 p.m. Line: Ravens by 7.5
There are some N.F.L. games that captivate the imaginations of both die-hard and casual fans, matchups between thrilling teams led by compelling superstars who play a fast-paced, innovative style of football. And then there is this game.
The Texans and the Ravens are solid, sturdy and well-built, like two utilitarian storage sheds. Their fans certainly love them, and traditionalists get jazzed when the Texans execute a precise zone-stretch run or the Ravens dust off the ”I-Right-32-Iso” running play that Pop Warner coaches introduce in their first practices. But this game is a true undercard. The Ravens have been reliable playoff spackle for years, keeping the A.F.C. properly glued together by dispatching whatever first-round playoff opponents don’t belong before bowing out to the real contenders in later rounds. The Texans will tell you that they are not ”just happy to be here” until you believe it as much as they do, but they lost, 29-14, to the Ravens when quarterback Matt Schaub was healthy in Week 6, and T.J. Yates is out of his element against the Ravens’ defense, with its old guard of future Hall of Famers and second wave of perennial Pro Bowlers.
When the Ravens have the ball Handoff. Handoff. Handoff. Bomb. Handoff. Bomb. Handoff. Handoff. Replace the handoffs to Ray Rice and Joe Flacco satellite launches with dots and dashes, and the resulting Morse code spells out ”predictable.” To balance their high-low game, the Ravens mix in screen passes to Rice – he led A.F.C. running backs with 76 receptions for 704 yards – and the occasional 15-yard out-route along the sideline to Anquan Boldin. Still, the bombs are what allow the Ravens to score more than 13 points per game. Flacco was just 10 for 34 on passes that traveled over 30 yards in the air this season, but there is a hidden benefit to all of those long-distance flights: the Ravens gained 280 yards on opposing pass interference penalties, by far the highest total in the N.F.L.
The Texans held the Bengals, another bomb-or-bust team, to just two pass plays of over 20 yards last week, though they were flagged for a 52-yard pass interference penalty. Defensive linemen J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith had outstanding games, but they will face a much tougher offensive line this week.
When the Texans have the ball What happens on the Texans’ line stays on the Texans’ line. Arian Foster ran 24 times for 153 yards against the Bengals, with the backup Ben Tate adding nine carries for 37 yards. In their wake was a strip-logged forest of Bengals defenders who were cut-blocked, sneakily held and otherwise mauled by Eric Winston, Duane Brown and the rest of the Houston line’s rulebook-benders. The Texans played exactly the game they wanted to play against the Bengals, building a two-touchdown lead on an interception return and a long pass to Andre Johnson, then running the ball 13 times in the fourth quarter in an attempt to bury the football until the final gun. Opponents like the Jaguars and the Seahawks proved that turtle tactics can work against the Ravens, but Foster and Tate combined for just 90 yards in their last trip to Baltimore, perhaps because many Ravens defenders are old enough to remember when cut blocking was invented.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will be enshrined in Canton if they ever retire, and while Lewis has been about half as good as his reputation for the last five years, Reed still feeds off the poor decisions of quarterbacks like some cherry-picking vampire. Yates must be wary of Reed’s ability to anticipate pass patterns, but the real difference-makers on the Ravens’ defense are tackle Haloti Ngata and the pass rusher Terrell Suggs. Ngata recorded five sacks and helped the Ravens’ defense hold opponents to just 3.5 yards per rush. Suggs’s 14 sacks tell only part of the story of how well he played: he recorded 70 total tackles, and, according to the Web site Football Outsiders, opponents averaged negative 0.2 yards on those stops.
Pick Move over, Texans: the Ravens have an A.F.C. championship game to lose next week. Ravens
Giants (10-7) at Packers (15-1)
Sunday, 4:30 p.m. Line: Packers by 7.5