Jeff Zrebiec, The Athletic
The 2023 Ravens have been on a fun ride, complete with blowout victories over quality teams, breakout individual performances and another MVP-worthy campaign by quarterback Lamar Jackson. The pressure will be on this weekend to prolong the ride and capitalize because they stand to look significantly different next season.
“We do have a decent amount of guys who are going to be free agents and coaches that will possibly get other opportunities elsewhere,” Ravens veteran fullback Patrick Ricard said last week. “It’s kind of like this group that’s been able to do what we’ve done is not going to be the same next year. It never is. But with the talent that we have and the coaches that we have, it kind of is now or never. Let’s do this thing the best we can and see what happens, because we know that we’re all not going to be back here next year.”
“This is a better team than 2019, because again, the variety on offense, the suffocating style on defense. They are built defensively to play today’s game,” said ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback. “I also think you’re getting into the playoffs with rookies or backup quarterbacks with four teams. You don’t have to play Joe Burrow. You don’t have to play the Steelers with a stud quarterback. Miami was decimated by injuries. If we’re being honest and going, ‘OK, who is the best team (in the AFC) that’s healthy that they’d have to face,’ it’s Buffalo. Maybe Houston, but Houston is young. It sets up for them. It would be a disappointment if they are not in the Super Bowl.”
Kyle Goon, The Baltimore Banner
This week is bound to present comparisons, fair or not, between Jackson and Stroud. But they are stylistically very different. One thing that should concern Baltimore in the film room this week is how good Stroud is at downfield passing — the area where Jackson has been dinged throughout his career.
Houston hasn’t held back at all, using Stroud’s big arm to get the ball downfield. NextGen Stats shows Stroud is one of the league’s best passers at attempts of 20 yards or more, thanks in large part to fantastic chemistry with Nico Collins (1,297 yards). He’s also been able to take care of the ball, throwing just five picks against 23 touchdowns in the regular season. He can’t take off like Jackson from the pocket, but he’s found ways to extend plays and give receivers time to get downfield.
Stroud’s poise in the biggest games has shined. He hasn’t thrown an interception in his last six games, and he helped Houston pull through in a must-win game in Week 18 even before his playoff success.
C.J. Doon, The Baltimore Sun
The defense is peaking at the right time
The season opener offered a glimpse of what was to come for Houston.
After sacking Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson four times in Week 1, the Texans finished the season with 46 sacks and ranked fifth in the league in pressure rate (25.7%) despite blitzing at one of the lowest rates in the league (21%).
Will Anderson Jr., who Houston traded up to select No. 3 overall, led all rookies with 59 quarterback pressures and recorded seven sacks while grading well against the run. Fellow defensive end Jonathan Greenard also enjoyed a breakout season, ranking 10th in the league with 12 1/2 sacks.
That ability to generate pressure made the difference in Saturday’s win over the Browns, as Joe Flacco was sacked four times and threw a pair of interceptions that were returned for touchdowns on back-to-back drives. The former Ravens quarterback had a passer rating of 31.7 when pressured, according to ESPN.
The Texans also have a budding shutdown corner. After struggling during his rookie season, Derek Stingley Jr. is playing at a Pro Bowl level and is coming off perhaps the best performance of his career. Stingley covered Browns star receiver Amari Cooper on 83.3% of his routes Saturday and allowed just one catch for minus-6 yards just three weeks after Cooper burned Houston’s secondary for a franchise-record 265 yards.
Stephen Holder & Seth Walker, ESPN
FPI projection: BAL, 81.7%
Opening line: BAL -9 (45.5)
What to know: Welcome back to the postseason, Lamar Jackson. The leading candidate for NFL MVP will start his first postseason game since the 2020 season. Jackson was injured and missed Baltimore’s lone playoff game last season, but his presence gives the Ravens their biggest reason for optimism in making a run at the Super Bowl.
For the Texans, it’s a chance to shock the world. But for rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and rookie coach DeMeco Ryans, it will be a massive test against a Baltimore defense that led the NFL in sacks during the regular season (60). Houston will be facing the hottest team in the league down the stretch, as the Ravens won six of their past seven games. And since Week 11, Baltimore has the highest point margin in the NFL (plus-90).
Why the Ravens will win: The 2023 Ravens’ defense finished sixth in EPA per play (minus-0.1) among all teams over the past 10 seasons. Sixth! Baltimore’s incredible defense — with all its simulated pressure that seems to constantly create sack opportunities — gives the Ravens a great chance against anyone.
I haven’t even mentioned the likely league MVP yet. Jackson finished the season hot, with incredible performances against the 49ers and then the Dolphins to close out his regular season (he sat in Week 18). With real receivers on this offense, including Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr., every play is a constant dual threat of Jackson’s legs and arm. Baltimore can win with offense or defense (heck, or even special teams). And that’s why the Ravens are so tough.
2024 NFL divisional round playoff picks, schedule: Bills beat Chiefs in thriller, Texans shock Ravens
John Breech, CBS Sports
No. 4 Houston (11-7) at No. 1 Baltimore (13-4)
I’ll be honest, besides the Cowboys and Chargers, there’s no team in the NFL that I have less faith in to win a playoff game than the Ravens. Since Lamar Jackson took over the starting job, the Ravens have gone 1-3 in the playoffs and they were favored to win in two of those three losses. For whatever reason, the Ravens offense has basically no-showed in their four playoff games with Jackson: They’ve averaged just 13 points per game in his four starts.
The easiest way to win in the playoffs is to come up with a game plan that your opponent doesn’t see coming and one that exposes their flaws and Ryans can absolutely do that with the Ravens. Of course, even if the Texans figure out a way to slow down Jackson — I don’t think they’ll shut him down completely — they’ll still need a big game from C.J. Stroud, who will be going up against one of the best defenses in football.
The Texans played 10 games this season against teams that finished the year with a winning record and they went 7-3. In those games, Stroud averaged over 300 yards passing while also throwing 21 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. Stroud has essentially been at his best against good teams.
The pick: Texans 23-20 over Ravens