Playoff preview: Texans-Ravens
And for all the Ravens' regular season success, playing in front of the home fans at this time of the year is a pretty foreign situation for them, too. Baltimore hasn't hosted a playoff game since the 2006 season -- two years before drafting Joe Flacco -- and has not won a postseason game on its home field since Dec. 31, 2000 against Denver.
After spending the last three postseasons on the road, Baltimore made it a priority to win the AFC North and secure home-field advantage this time around. The Ravens' raucous fans will be ready.
"It's going to be a lot tougher than Cincinnati," Texans lineman Eric Winston told the
Baltimore finished the regular season a perfect 8-0 at home (compared to 4-4 on the road), including a win over the Texans. Home teams rolled through the playoffs' opening round unblemished at 4-0.
"It certainly hammered home how difficult it is to go on the road," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the 4-0 mark for host teams last weekend.
The Texans, of course, have never played a road playoff game since coming into the league in 2002. Baltimore hasn't won a home game in the postseason in more than a decade. Something has to give Sunday.
This game will be a test of strength against strength -- or, more specifically, strengths against strengths.
Houston finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the league in rushing offense at 153 yards per game, behind the steady duo of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The Texans matched that physical prowess on the other side of the ball, too, allowing just 285.7 yards per game (second-best in the league) and 17.4 points (fourth-best).
The Ravens bring a similar approach into this matchup. Baltimore wound up 10th overall in rushing (128 yards per game), third in yards allowed (288.9) and third in points allowed (16.6). The home team has a nice 1-2 punch in the backfield, too, with Ray Rice and Ricky Williams, though it's the versatile Rice who does most of the damage.
These teams look even more alike statistically if you loop in their average passing games -- the Texans put up 219.1 yards per game (18th overall) to Baltimore's 213.9 (19th).
Don't expect either team to change its approach a whole lot. Houston may take to the air a little bit more, either out of necessity or because Andre Johnson came back to the lineup last week after missing the majority of the season. Likewise, Baltimore could give Flacco a little leeway, if the Texans can limit Rice early or if the game plan calls for some looks Anquan Boldin's way in his first game back from injury.
Otherwise, it'll be an in-the-trenches slugfest.
Back in August, Ray Lewis told CBS Sports' Mike Freeman that, "If we can win it this year, and I'm being brutally honest with you, if we win it this year, I'm gone to then spend as much time as I can with [my son]."
The long-time face of the Ravens franchise, Lewis missed four games due to injury this season and will be 37 before the 2012 season kicks off. So it's not surprising that he's thinking retirement -- especially if he can go out on top.
On the other hand, it's hard to say Lewis has lost a step, since he earned yet another Pro Bowl berth this season with 95 tackles, two sacks and seven pass deflections. He may not be the pure dominating force he was four or five years ago, but he's still an elite linebacker.
"Put it this way," Harbaugh said this week, "I think Ray Lewis has a lot of football left in him."
That might be the case, but three wins in a row from Baltimore, starting Sunday, may send the star linebacker off into the limelight.
By knocking off the Bengals, T.J. Yates became just the fifth rookie quarterback to win a playoff game in the Super Bowl era. Sunday in Baltimore, he'll look to join Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez as the only first-year QBs to capture multiple playoff wins.
Here's a look at how rookie starting quarterbacks have fared in the postseason, before last week's Yates-vs.-Andy Dalton all-rookie matchup:
The Ravens already beat the Texans once this season, back in Week 6, when Matt Schaub was still the No. 1 QB for Houston. Three months and two quarterbacks later, Houston's back in Baltimore with T.J. Yates at the helm.
Can the rookie handle the pressure of playing on the road? He'll have to be pretty much flawless to give his team a chance. Of course, Houston will try to limit his impact Sunday by leaning on its run game and defense, just as it's done all season long.
Baltimore will counter in kind, with lots of Rice, quick passes from Flacco and an occasional shot downfield.
It's been a great ride for Houston so far this season, and even with a depleted roster, the Texans have enough to give Baltimore a battle. But the Ravens are the better team and, barring a meltdown in front of their home fans, ought to move on to the AFC title game.