The Texans need to see some more of this to win Sunday.
This past Saturday, the Houston Texans played, hosted and won their first playoff game in team history when they hosted the Cincinnati Bengals. It marked the first time two rookie quarterbacks met head-to-head in the playoffs. The Texans came away 31-10, and earned their way into a Divisional Round matchup with the Baltimore Ravens, without the bye they lost after going on a three-game skid and losing the No. 1 seed to fall to No. 3.
Expert predictions and popular sentiment were pretty well split before that game, and not without reason. Houston had no playoff experience and was on a three-game losing streak. Cincinnati was on the road, but would be used to having no one cheer for them. People were looking for an upset, and for some reason weren't looking for Tim Tebow.
The same cannot be said for this Sunday's impending matchup between the Ravens and Texans. You'd be hard-pressed to find an expert who actually picked the Texans to win, and not without reason. Still, it's a little odd how few supporters the Texans have around the country when you consider their defense and offense are rated higher than the Ravens'.
Then again, when you consider that the Ravens have not lost at home all season (including their Week 6 tilt against Houston), perhaps it's not so odd at all.
But if the Texans can win, what will have to happen? How can they pull the upset this week?
Here are my 11 keys to the game. Because this slideshow goes to 11.
T.J. Yates to Andre Johnson needs to be a phrase used all day.
If this slide seems obvious, it should.
Andre Johnson is probably the best player the Texans have left, certainly on offense. He can run faster, jump higher, catch better, balance longer and hit harder than any other receiver on the team.
And he wasn't around when the Ravens won in Week 6.
'Dre needs to get involved in the passing game early, and in a big way, in order to stretch the field and command the double team he usually gets, so that the running game doesn't get shut down like it did the last time.
Last time these teams faced off, Arian Foster was held to 49 yards, and Ben Tate to 41.
The only team that did as well was the Cincinnati Bengals, who held Foster to 41 and Tate to 67, also without Johnson.
When they played on Saturday with Johnson in the lineup, Foster had 153 and Tate had 37 in very limited duty.
If the Texans running game can get 130 yards and a touchdown, while eating up clock and keeping the defense off the field, Johnson might not even need a score to make a huge impact on this game.
Then again, if the Texans need a score late, you could do worse than to let T.J. Yates heave it up for the big man to go get.
What this team needs is more hugging.
Much has been made at times about the Texans' supposed lack of a true No. 2 receiver.
That's not the discussion today.
This slide is about the myriad of quality receivers the Texans have and where you can find them.
Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels, Joel Dreesen, Arian Foster, Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones, (both those guys made ridiculous ricochet catches this season), James Casey, Ben Tate, Derrick Ward. Is that enough for you?
Just don't throw it to Vickers. (We miss you, Vonta.)
T.J. Yates needs to spread the ball around and hit at least five of these guys, and in different spots.
The Texans need to score early and keep their lead
In years past, the Texans have been a come-from-behind kind of team. Matt Schaub's numbers were so gaudy because the team was constantly throwing to make up ground against teams leading them late.
But this year, the Texans have been able to get a number of early leads, and they do their best work in that situation (unsurprisingly).
With such a tough opponent, it may be their only chance to win.
If the Texans can score first, they can rely on their running game, which is stout and consistent.
A solid running game feeds their passing game, which is predicated on play-action and bootlegs.
An offense clicking in multiple ways keeps the defense honest, spread out and on the field, all things the Texans will need, considering the skill that defense has.
It will also keep the Texans' brutal offense fresh and ready to go out and wreak havoc on the Ravens' O.
The longer the Texans can maintain a lead, the more doubt will creep into the minds of the Baltimore players and fans, and the more desperate they might get.
The Texans only win if the Ravens do things they don't want to, and that starts with getting a lead.
I don't know what this is.
I'm of the opinion that if the Texans could have locked up home field, then no team would be favored over them.
Unfortunately, they have to go on the road against one of the toughest teams they could face.
Just as unfortunately, the fans aren't staying away like the Bengals' crowds.
So the Texans have to be able to come into a very hostile environment and play very well.
Which is why I think they need to receive first if they can.
If they Texans can jump to an early lead—perhaps while not every fan is sitting down yet—they can perhaps quiet the crowd enough to put them on close to an even footing. If they can somehow get up by two scores, say with a big defensive play, then maybe, just maybe, they can get the Ravens faithful to start booing their own team.
Many of those fans expect a rout, and if their team struggles, they could get angry.
Connor Barwin gets sacks.
Joe Flacco is a pretty well respected quarterback. He's not magic like Tebow, doesn't get numbers like Cam Newton or Tom Brady, doesn't get press like Rodgers and Manning.
In that way, he's a lot like Matt Schaub. Not much in their play styles, but in their responsibilities.
And like Schaub, he has a team around him that doesn't ask much of him. He doesn't need to do a whole lot to get a win. Just be careful with the ball, and make a big throw here and there when they need him.
If he can do that, the Texans are probably beaten.
The Texans absolutely have to get pressure on Flacco, early and consistently. They don't need to sack him (though certainly they'd like to), but they have got to touch him, put him on the ground, knock his own players into him, anything to get him rattled just a little bit.
If Flacco hurries some throws, fails to connect on third downs, gets a little dirty, or, Tebow willing, throws a pick, then good things will happen for the Texans. They don't need one game-changing play or for Flacco to lose his mind, they just need him to get a little frustrated or to press just a bit. If they can squeak out just a few mistakes from him, it could be the difference between winning and losing.
I didn't have a topical photo for this slide. Enjoy James Casey!
What could I possibly mean by Time Travel?
What I mean is, the Texans need to play their game on Sunday, the 16th of January, 2012.
Hopefully the Ravens will be playing sometime the following week.
Many fans in Baltimore are already thinking of heading into New England (what about Tebow?) and have completely overlooked this week's game, their team's playoff opener, as already in the bag.
The Texans could only hope that some of the players are doing the same thing.
Now, I realize that the Ravens are professionals, and their coaches are professionals, and there is very little chance they'll be caught napping by a team that's the three seed.
But a guy can hope.
Especially since the Ravens have played down to "lesser" teams like the Jaguars and Titans this season, if only the Ravens would view Houston in that light, maybe the Texans' chances of pulling the upset would increase.
JJ Watt got his first interception and TD last week.
On Saturday, the Texans took the lead for the first and last time when defensive end JJ Watt intercepted Andy Dalton with less than two minutes to go in the first half, then ran it in for a touchdown. The Texans ended up with two more interceptions, while taking care of the ball offensively, despite some early jitters by T.J. Yates and Arian Foster, who fumbled the ball to himself twice in the early going, and a near-pick thrown by Yates later in the game that could have let the Bengals back in.
In order to beat Baltimore at home, the Texans are going to need at least one big, momentum-changing turnover that takes away an opportunity for the Ravens to score, while setting up the Texans to get some points of their own.
But more importantly, all game they will need to protect the ball and prevent the Ravens from doing the same to them. This may mean taking sacks, throwing the ball away, taking intentional grounding penalties and punting the ball away. Anything to avoid giving the Ravens a short field.
Can the Texans come out on top?
Despite being statistically better on offense and defense than the Ravens, the Texans don't have a lot of advantages against Baltimore.
If the Texans have a chance to win, the game will likely be close most of the day. That plays in the Texans' favor, however, as if they can keep it close until the fourth quarter, that will increase pressure on the Ravens, and if they can combine that with tiring the Ravens physically, it could be a recipe for a big play late.
Tiring the Ravens won't be easy, however.
To succeed at that, the entire team will have to be firing on all cylinders together. The offense will need to be able to run, and use all of its halfbacks and fullbacks to grind down the Ravens front seven, while the offensive line needs to use its stretch runs to tire their legs. The tight ends and receivers need to block not only to open holes for the carrier, but to wear down their defenders as well.
And the defense needs to make every hit feel like the last one and use their vaunted energy to stay more in the game than their opponents.
Remember Derrick Ward?
I shouldn't have to say this, as after a few weeks of "1-0" being the Texans' mantra, it became "Next Man Up" (keywords there being Man Up) by necessity.
I'm fairly certain that the only position group that didn't lose a major contributor for at least three weeks was the tight ends, and Owen Daniels may be playing with a broken hand on Sunday.
And with fifth-round draft pick and rookie T.J. Yates starting at quarterback over Jake Delhomme, you might think the Texans are very comfortable with their backups.
But that's all out of necessity.
I'm talking more about putting backups in by choice.
Last year, with Ben Tate hurt, Derrick Ward backed up Arian Foster all year and averaged 6.3 yards per rushing attempt.
He's played in six games this year, and is averaging 3.4 yards per attempt in spot duty.
That's nothing to hang your hat on, but the Ravens did a good job slowing the Texans' rush in Week 6, and if Foster struggles, they should put in Tate, and if Tate struggles, they should put in Ward, and not be too worried if he doesn't get much either. Anything to keep the Texans fresh while wearing out the Ravens. And who knows? One back's style might work a little better than the next, and the change might open something up. As amazing as Arian is, they're all capable.
Likewise, whoever starts, both fullbacks Lawrence Vickers and James Casey should play. Their differing styles will open up the playbook, and the two of them can pound the defense much more than either could alone.
After being called "soft" by NFL Network's Michael Lombardi before the season started, Jacksonville Jaguars players called them out as "dirty" and Tennessee Titans players called them out as guys who "cheap-shot" people.
I'm not advocating the Texans players cheat on Sunday, and I don't think they would. (Check out Brian Cushing's Zen-like patience in the clip.) However, the Texans need to play this game as hard as possible, right to the very edge of what's appropriate to win. And if the Ravens players cry foul when all is said and done? I won't mind.
It will only happen if the Texans win.
T.J. Yates needs to stay upright - and limit mistakes.
Possibly the most important thing for the Texans to do to give themselves a shot to win in Baltimore is to play clean.
This means a couple of things. First, they need to avoid turnovers. Too many times this year a great play by Arian Foster or Ben Tate has ended in a fumble.
Second, they need to keep T.J. Yates upright. For a rookie with six games of experience, he's remarkably poised, calm and focused, so I'm not so much afraid he'll get rattled by being sacked. What I'm afraid of is that Yates, who injured his non-throwing arm on a sack early in the season finale against the Titans, could get hurt, forcing Jake Delhomme into the game suddenly and place the team one play away from the Jeff Garcia era in Houston.
The Texans have already lost two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, and I'm fairly certain that the third time would not be the charm.
Finally, they need to limit penalties. Last week, there was a huge pass interference penalty called against Glover Quin for 53 yards. Now, the alternative would have been to let the guy score, so it was a good decision, but it was a terrible position to be in. That kind of thing would kill their chances in Baltimore.
To win on Sunday, the Texans will need to play their best game of the season. They'll need to play up to the moment, eliminate mistakes, win the turnover battle and be effective in all three phases of the game.
It's not a smart bet to count on the Texans to win this week.
Vegas has them at down a touchdown plus change, and those guys generally know what's up.
But they're only down one touchdown, and those Vegas guys know some things. Maybe a break here or there is all that's needed to make a difference. So I say, it's not a smart bet to count out the Texans this week.