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Ravens' Ugly Win Over Texans Illustrates Underwhelming AFC Playoff Picture

The Ravens climbed back as the AFC's sixth seed, but this Monday night performance vs. the Texans was only watchable in flashes, just like the teams fighting for the playoffs in the conference not named the Patriots or Steelers.

Three thoughts from the Ravens' ugly 23-16 win over the Texans on Monday night:

1. In a near-upset Monday, the Houston Texans were close to doing the NFL a favor by keeping the milk-and-water Baltimore offense at arm’s length of a postseason game. The Ravens (6-5) managed to climb back into the AFC’s sixth seed despite putting up yet another confounding performance with the football. 

Joe Flacco threw the ball 32 times, but averaged just 4.4 yards per attempt. Mike Wallace led the team in receiving with 48 yards. Baltimore’s most electric play came on a fake punt —or perhaps a stunning low-speed Flacco bootleg with two minutes left to play. The call elicited a playful, what’s up now? shove on the sidelines between head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Sigh.

The game was a statement at large about the AFC as a whole. Beyond the Steelers and Patriots, teams in this division are only watchable in flashes. The Jaguars are enjoyable when they don’t have the ball. The Titans are fun when they can actually run their offense, though their punishing running back duo seems to be leaking fuel. The Chiefs have regressed. The Bills are two weeks removed from experimenting with Nathan Peterman at quarterback.

This is why the Deshaun Watson’s torn ACL hurts so much. His presence was an espresso shot to the division; a gamer who could go toe-to-toe with the Tom Brady’s and Ben Roethlisberger’s of the world, and he was also a complement to his talented defense. With a Pro Bowl team worth of injured stars already plaguing the league this year, it was one unfortunate injury too many. 

AFC West Heading Toward a Wild Finish

2. One reason to enjoy the Ravens? Their defense is still spectacular. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said after the game that the one unit alone makes them a dangerous playoff wildcard—and he may not be far off. A game-ending Tom Savage interception made 18 picks on the season, which leads the NFL. Terrell Suggs was menacing, with three quarterback hits, two sacks and a pass breakup. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees still draws up some of the most aesthetically pleasing blitzes in football.

Because NFL careers seem to zip by, this may be a good time to start appreciating how much trouble Suggs can cause swooping off the edge. Like Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers, he is an artist that has helped define an era of star pass rushers. 

“This team was built on defense,” Suggs told ESPN afterwards. “So it’s natural that all the games come down to us winning them.”

No kidding.  

3. For a majority of the game, Jadeveon Clowney was like a major league baseball player on rehab assignment. He was the main attraction in an otherwise flavorless matchup. 

On Baltimore’s first drive, Clowney left former first-round pick Ronnie Stanley hunched and flat-footed with a forceful swim move. Guard James Hurst tried to latch on as a stopgap, but ended up watching the defensive end sprint toward Flacco and force an errant throw.  

On Baltimore’s second drive, facing a second-and-13, Clowney paced around in a linebacker stance roughly five yards from the ball before choosing a gap just before the ball was snapped. He shot through into the backfield untouched and blasted Alex Collins for a loss of five yards. 

On Baltimore’s third drive, facing a third-and-10, Clowney lined up between Baltimore’s left tackle and guard. He engaged the guard, pushing him back enough to create a lane to the quarterback. Center Ryan Jensen attempted to wrangle Clowney down by tackling him at the waist to no avail. 

Since the start of the 2016 season, only Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones has more tackles for a loss per ESPN. According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, Clowney has sacks as a left end, an interior tackle and a right end. Even without J.J. Watt on the field, this defense is watchable for one significant reason.

Of course, on certain plays, Clowney illustrated why he’s still more of a fascination than a perennial All-Pro discussion. There were screen plays where he was miles away from the ball. He jumped offsides on a crucial snap down the stretch. He’ll be looking at the more tenured Suggs for inspiration moving forward.