Many Ravens fans see the Texans as a team with no chance of beating the Ravens on Sunday. In the two teams' first matchup this season in week 6, the Ravens scored 29 points against a Texans defense that allowed an average of less than 18. While the offense moved the ball effectively behind a Joe Flacco effort of 305 yards, points were difficult to come by inside the 20, which resulted in five field goals from Billy Cundiff. The Ravens may need better red zone production this time around.
Lending itself to Ravens fan's confidence is the fact that the Ravens held Houston's impressive offense to only 14 points in the previous matchup--and that was with star QB Matt Schaub. This time, the Ravens will face rookie T.J. Yates, who had a rough finish to the season before having a solid outing at home against the Bengals. In six games, Yates posted an impressive completion percentage for a rookie at 61.2%, but with 3 TDs and 3 INTs, his TD to INT ratio leaves something to be desired against a defense known for rattling rookie QBs and causing turnovers. The Ravens, with their considerable home field advantage, notched 33 of their 48 sacks at M&T Bank Stadium. Yates would do well to avoid 3rd and long.
How do the Texans keep their rookie QB in manageable down and distance situations? They give the ball to this guy named Arian Foster. You might have heard of him these past two seasons, provided you don't live on the moon and have access to SportsCenter. Foster notched 10 TDs on over 1200 yards rushing in 2011, and put up 153 yards against the Bengals in their first playoff game. But in the week 6 matchup, the Ravens limited Foster to 49 yards on 15 carries. The Texans will need more production from Foster, to say the least.
But that is easier said than done against a Ravens defense that is 2nd in the NFL against the run. The Ravens do, however, have one considerable weakness for the Texans to attack: runs to the outside. The Ravens allowed 5.97 yards per carry on runs around left end; third-worst in the NFL. On right end it's not quite so scary, at 4.0 yards per carry. (Credit goes to ESPN's John Clayton for those stats.) The Texans used outside runs very effectively against Cincinnati, and will certainly look to continue that success this weekend.
Texans fans can also look forward to a matchup in which they will be able to utilize all-world WR Andre Johnson, who was absent due to injury in the week 6 game. Johnson's importance to a rookie QB is rather self-evident, especially when Yates is preparing to face the toughest defensive side he's ever seen. The Ravens will likely put Pro Bowl snub Lardarius Webb on Johnson. While the 5'9" Webb gives Johnson about 5 inches, he remains the Ravens most complete corner and a solid tackler. Webb also has solid hands in the event of an errant pass from Yates, as he had 5 INTs on the season. The Ravens will assist Webb with safety help over the top to bracket Johnson. To do otherwise would be downright reckless.
On the other hand, the Texans may be without Yates' 3rd down security blanket in TE Owen Daniels. Daniels, a stud in his own right, will undergo an MRI on a possible broken hand that he suffered against the Bengals. As Ravens fans recall from Joe Flacco's rookie season, a consistent TE is a rookie QB's best friend, especially against the blitz. Missing him would pose a serious challenge for the young passer, but in all likelihood, Daniels will play. (UPDATE: Daniels to play, as per Head Coach Gary Kubiak.)
My personal prediction is that while the Texans may enjoy some success with the stretch plays and while the Ravens may get beat deep at some point by Andre Johnson, ultimately the Ravens are too good at home to let this game get away from them. Sooner or later Yates will find himself in a position where he is a long way away from the first down marker and a short way away from getting engulfed by a ferocious pass rush. In those situations, the rookie will not be successful, and the Texans will not be able to score when they need it most. I also expect Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to be able to move the ball consistently as they did in the first meeting.
M&T Bank Stadium is truly an electric place during the playoffs, and the Ravens will remain unbeaten at home in the 2011-2012 season. Ravens, 27-17.