The Baltimore Ravens control their playoff fate with the regular season winding down.
While the Houston Texans remain mathematically alive, making the postseason is highly unlikely - especially given their state of flux under center.
Gary Kubiak is among some key Ravens who may get extra motivation from facing their former team, but they already had plenty because Baltimore could lock up a playoff berth as early as Sunday when it visits a Texans team down to its fourth quarterback.
Baltimore (9-5) is tied with AFC North rival Pittsburgh atop the wild-card standings, though the Ravens currently own the second spot due to a worse division record. Both teams are also one-half game behind Cincinnati for the North lead.
The Ravens would clinch a playoff spot by winning their last two games, but they can get in Sunday with a victory over Houston and losses by Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. A Baltimore win along with a loss or tie by Kansas City and San Diego would also do it.
"I'm excited about our team. I like where we're at," said coach John Harbaugh, whose Ravens have won two straight and four of five. "I think we're getting stronger and I also think there's room for improvement, which gives me a lot of encouragement and excitement. We've yet to play our best game, by far. Our best game is out there yet."
Kubiak is surely hoping to see it come Sunday as he makes his first trip back to Houston since getting fired last December after leading the Texans to a 2-11 start. The Ravens are averaging 26.9 points under their new offensive coordinator to rank eighth in the league, but they had to squeak out a 20-12 victory over woeful Jacksonville last Sunday.
Kubiak shrugged off the fact that he's facing the team he coached for the previous eight seasons.
"I'm just looking at them defensively," he said. "... We got our hands full, we need to play a lot better."
Ravens tight end Owen Daniels was more direct in regard to how he feels about taking on a Texans team which released him in March. Daniels started for Houston through much of his first eight seasons in the NFL.
"When you work somewhere for so long, and they say that you're not good enough to play for them anymore, and you get a chance to play them that following season, you definitely want to prove to 'em that they made a mistake," said Daniels, who scored Baltimore's only offensive touchdown last week.
Justin Forsett surely doesn't hold as big a grudge considering he played behind star Arian Foster during his only season with Houston in 2012. Forsett is fifth in the league with a career-high 1,128 rushing yards, one ahead of Foster, who has played three fewer games due to injury.
The Texans (7-7) had won two in a row before losing two quarterbacks in last Sunday's 17-10 defeat at Indianapolis. Ryan Fitzpatrick was carted off with a broken leg in the second quarter, and rookie Tom Savage suffered a knee injury.
While Houston left the door open for Savage to return in Week 17, he's been ruled out against the Ravens.
Ryan Mallett, who had taken over for a benched Fitzpatrick in Weeks 11 and 12, is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
"It's the nature of the game, nature of the beast. It's something that around here we've been through in the past," center Chris Myers said. "We've just got to move on and it's next man up. That's the way it is at every position and unfortunately this year it's been at the quarterback position."
It remains to be seen if Houston will turn to Thad Lewis or Case Keenum, who was signed off St. Louis' practice squad Monday. Keenum threw for 1,760 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions in eight starts for Houston last season.
"I think there's a definite advantage to him having been with us," coach Bill O'Brien said of Keenum, whom the Texans cut in August. "He was with us for a good amount of time. He was with us when we installed the offense and was with us in training camp."
Lewis, who was signed Nov. 26, posted a passer rating of 81.0 in going 2-3 in five starts with Buffalo last season.
Whoever gets the call should be helped by the likely return of Pro Bowl wideout Andre Johnson, who sat out last week with a concussion.
However, Lewis or Keenum could be in for a rough day against a Ravens defense which has 25 sacks over the past five games, including 14 in the last two weeks while holding both opponents below 250 total yards.
Houston's J.J. Watt also continues to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. The All-Pro defensive end has recorded seven sacks in the last three games, giving him 16 1/2 on the season to rank third in the league.
"We've seen him enough in the past," Harbaugh said of the 6-foot-5 Watt, who also has three short TD receptions. "His size – he's gigantic. And he's really fast. He does everything. ... Great competitor, great motor. He just has it all."
Watt sacked Flacco once in last season's meeting, but the Texans fell 30-9. The Ravens are 6-1 in the series, with their only loss coming 43-13 at Houston on Oct. 21, 2012.