With the Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, Houston Texans, and Pittsburgh Steelers all proud owners of 10 victories this NFL season, listening to the so-called experts discuss which team is best, and will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVI, can be dizzying, comical, and downright mind-numbing, all at the same time.
The question will ultimately be answered on January 22 when the AFC determines it conference champion. It's even possible that team isn't even mentioned above. How many were screaming Green Bay’s name last year at this time as a pick to win the Super Bowl?
For those of you who cannot wait until late January, and need to know now, it's not that big of a debate if you have been watching all four teams closely these past few weeks.
In fact, the answer is pretty clear that the Baltimore Ravens are the best team in the American Football Conference.
Many say the Ravens just do not possess the intangibles to win the AFC.
I say the Ravens are just starting to heat up as the weather turns cold. The Ravens offense cannot get it done when it matters, you say. I ask, does the last four weeks matter in terms of getting it done when it counts?
The Ravens have won four in a row during what is considered crunch time in the NFL, and since November 4 Baltimore has allowed the NFL’s fewest sacks (four), tying New Orleans.
Currently they have the best sack differential in the league, and lead the the NFL with 45 sacks. While that stat may not surprise you, their offensive line, which was much maligned to start the season, has allowed just 24 sacks of their own through 13 games.
In fact, the Ravens have not allowed a sack during the first quarter all season.
These numbers are in stark contrast to last season, when Baltimore only recorded a franchise-low 27 sacks on defense, while Flacco went down 42 times on offense. The Ravens are plus-21 this year, which is four better than the second -place Dream Teamers from Philadelphia.
For the past four weeks, running back Ray Rice’s 470 rushing yards rank first in the NFL, and Baltimore’s 633 rushing yards rank second only to Carolina’s 658.
Most of the offense's success has come from the Ravens rushing attack, but Joe Flacco has led Baltimore to a 45.9 percent success rate on third down, which ranks second in the NFL (New Orleans is at 55 percent).
Finally, the Ravens have scored eight TDs in 12 red-zone trips, a 67 percent success rate.
Head coach John Harbaugh and his team have their fair share of issues, but they really pale in comparison to those in New England, Houston, and the Steel City. In a fickle week-to-week league like the NFL, a lot can change.
Injuries, strength of schedule, team chemistry and whether or not player potentials have been realized throughout the season are four key ingredients to any team’s success this time of year. The Ravens are the standard by which all teams should strive to be at this point in the regular season.
Since John Harbaugh took over in 2008, no team in the NFL has posted a better record in November, December and early January during the regular season than Baltimore.
The Ravens are 25-9 during the down-and-dirty time, and it finally appears this is the year they carry that success into late January and the first Sunday of February.
Baltimore is the poised team this season.
They are the only team in the NFL to win at least one playoff game during the past three seasons, and have done it all away from Charm City. Baltimore has played seven road playoff games under John Harbaugh, wining four of them.
Even if the Ravens should stumble in San Diego Sunday night, or at the end of the year in Cincinnati, costing them the division , or a No. 1, or 2 seed, getting to this year's big game will just be a little tougher, but still a real likelihood.
If the Ravens win out, they are the No.1 seed in the AFC. The irony would be great, as the road to Indianapolis, where another team originally from Baltimore currently plays, will go through M&T Bank Stadium. Fans will get rub the bronze toe of the Johnny Unitas statue, and then it really won’t matter who comes to play.
If you think the Ravens are pretty good on the road in the playoffs, they could be as close to a sure thing at home. Since the 2000 season, the Baltimore Ravens win almost 76 percent of the time there. With a 72-23 home record during that span, only the Patriots were better at home.
During the Harbaugh era,when the Ravens play at home they have compiled a 26-5 record. They have also swiped 48 interceptions, allowed just 13.4 points per game, outscored their opponents by 385 points (797-412) and have held opposing quarterbacks to a paltry 61.4 QB rating.
The Ravens; four playoff losses over the past five seasons have come at the hands of two Super Bowl Champions (2006 Colts, 2008 Steelers) and two AFC Champions 2010 Steelers, 2009 Colts).
This team is ready and the stats prove it.
Further, Baltimore has performed much better against common opponents in recent weeks, and seems to possess all of the intangibles necessary to be "that team" this year.
If all of these stats aren't proof enough that Baltimore is indeed the best in the AFC, here is a breakdown of how the Ravens would fare versus the Steelers, Pats and Texans.
During the last decade experts have declared the NFL a league based strictly on high-flying offenses. Quarterbacks are succeeding immediately out of college, and offenses appear to moving up and down the field, chewing up yards at a record pace each week.
As proof, look no further than the fact that three quarterbacks are on pace to set the NFL single-season passing record and shatter the mark former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino set in 1984 with 5,084 yards.
With that said, defense still wins championships, and this past decade has taught us that.
Some of the best offenses in NFL history have failed to win a championship during the 2000s so far, and if they did, they didn't win as many as those experts predicted they would.
Back in the early part of the new century, Rich Gannon’s Raiders found out that defense rules the day, and that's all it takes: one day, one game, 60 good minutes of rushing the passer.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also found out in 2007, when he led the Patriots to an undefeated regular season as the quarterback of the team that finished with the second-most productive offense in the history of the game.
That offense also set records for points scored in a year and point differential.
Brady’s 50 touchdown passes set a new NFL record, and wide receiver Randy Moss caught 23 of them from Tom Terrific, also breaking a record.
However, they scored just seven points through three quarters in Super Bowl XLII versus the New York Giants, and 14 total, as a ferocious defensive pass rush derailed the Pats' perfect season.
The 2000 and 2001 Rams, 2004 Colts, 2006 Chargers and 2007 Patriots are not the only proof that defense trumps offense in the postseason.
According to Cold Hard Football facts, of the 46 most prolific offenses in NFL history, dating back to 1941, only 12 won NFL or AFL Championships.
Even the Packers last season had a higher-ranked defense than they did offense, and while I believe Aaron Rodgers is next QB on the list in terms of high powered offenses being stopped in the Super Bowl, it won’t be the Patriots defense that does it.
The Pats defense is so bad that offensive players are becoming Pro Bowl candidates on it. While I'm just kidding about that stat, injuries and poor play has forced resident genius and head coach Bill Belichick to use wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater on the defensive side this season.
The Patriots defense is on pace to be historically bad, and three-time Super Bowl Champion quarterback Tom Brady is becoming increasingly frustrated with the overall situation.
New England is on pace to allow the most passing yards in the history of the league. Even though Brady says everything is OK with his coach, the sideline blow up with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien proves that the pressure of literally carrying his team on his arm is getting to him.
During the past two weeks the Patriots have allowed over 900 total yards to the Colts and Redskins, who have a combined record of 4-22 and an average total offensive rank of 24th in the NFL.
QB Rex Grossman of the Redskins threw for 252 yards and two touchdowns against the Pats. He led an offense that converted half of its third-down conversions, and going back to last week’s game versus the Colts, the Pats defense has allowed two of the worst third-down offenses in football to convert at a 58.6 (17-29) percent clip.
Even the Pats run defense, which was the only light at the end of the tunnel, turned out to be a freight train this past week named Roy Helu. Washington’s rookie running back rushed for 126 yards, as the Skins racked up a 170 yards on the ground, a season high versus the Pats defense.
Washington totaled 462 yards and had three players with at least 81 yards receiving on the day. New England's horrible secondary allowed six plays of greater than 20 yards, including a 49- and a 51-yard play.
Those that defend the Patriots will tell you that they do not give up the points that match the yards they allow.
I will tell you that Ray Rice, Arian Foster and Rashard Mendenhall, will take all of those yards as Tom Brady watches from the sideline. By the way, the top three defenses in the AFC in terms of points allowed per game are the Steelers, Ravens and Texans, so New England’s 21.1 points per game (14th) pale in comparison to 15.2 15.5 and 16, respectively.
Common Opponent: Indianapolis Colts:
If you think Rex Grossman tore into the Patriots defense, that was nothing compared to what Dan Orlovsky did as a starter the week before, as the Colts played the Ravens and Patriots in back-to-back weeks.
Orlovsky, who is the third starting QB trying to replace No. 18 this season in Indianapolis, turned in a Manning-like performance in New England, especially during Manning's best time of the game, the fourth quarter.
Making his first NFL start in three years and currently quarterbacking the second winless team of his career (2008 Lions), Orlovsky led the Colts to 21 fourth-quarter points.
The Patriots defense began the final frame with a 28-point lead (31-3), but after Orlovsky completed 12-of-13 passes and threw two late touchdowns, New England managed to escape with a seven-point win, for their fifth win a row.
For the game, Orlovsky was 30-of-37 for 353 yards and tossed two touchdowns. He completed 81 percent of his passes, and luckily for the Patriots, he simply seemed to run out of time to complete the comeback.
The seven-year, 18-game veteran posted his first QB rating north of the century mark (113.2) in his career, and led a Colts offense that converted a season-high 67 percent (10-of-15) on third down.
Indy wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who had some guy named Manning throwing to him for the last two seasons, set a career high against the sorry New England secondary with nine catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
Because of his numbers against New England, many thought Orlovsky stood a chance at some sort of success last Sunday versus the Ravens defense.
They were wrong.
Orlovsky completed fewer than half his passes for 136-yards, while the Colts could manage just 167 total yards of offense.
He was sacked four times and threw one interception on the day. While the Pats have a great offense, they simply fail to possess two of the proven keys for a successful playoff team.
They obviously don’t have a defense, and their rushing attack is not near good enough to break through the Ravens, or for that matter any decent defense, in the playoffs.
Why the Pats could beat Baltimore in the postseason:
While I do think the Ravens will win the division, I don't think they will win both of their remaining road games ( Sunday night in San Diego, or New Year's Day in Cincinnati). That could cost them the bye week, and possibly the division.
Having to travel to New England during the second week of the postseason and face Tom Brady at home, with possible foul weather, could even out any advantages the Ravens may have.
Furthermore, as vulnerable as the Pats defense is, the offense can score a lot of points.
Sunday’s unexpected shootout with the Skins was the 10th time this season and fifth time in a row the Patriots scored 30 points, a 30.5 point average that ranks behind only Green Bay and New Orleans. At 424.4 yards a game, the offense ranks second to the Saints, and is fifth on third-down conversions.
It's also a pretty good bet that Brady and Belichick have not forgotten about the last time Baltimore played the Patriots at home in the playoffs. The Ravens were not exactly quiet after beating up Brady and his team, 33-14 on Wild Card weekend during the 2009 playoffs.
Why they will not:
Simply put, the Ravens are a better team than the one that delivered that playoff beating two years ago, and will use the Patriots, regardless of where the game is played, like a scout team for the next round of the playoffs.
Sure, Brady and tight end Rob Gronkoski will get their yards, and possibly one or two touchdowns, but look for the Ravens to score at least five.
The Patriots have no rushing attack, and just like they did two years ago with the less aggressive Greg Mattison calling the defense, AFC sack leader Terrell Suggs and the rest of the Ravens defense will rush Brady relentlessly.
Brady may even be forced to blows with his offensive coordinator by the time Baltimore's defense is finished with him.
The Ravens “D” forced four Brady turnovers (3 INT-1 FR), and with a much more attacking style this year with Chuck Pagano calling the defense, those numbers could double.
Doubt it do you?
Just ask Big Ben this year. On offense, even the Ravens run-of-the-mill passing attack would have their way if needed, but it’s highly likely offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will stick with Ray Rice, who could produce 250 yards of total offense.
Joe Flacco completed just four passes for 34 yards during the Ravens' playoff win two years ago. With the speedster Torrey Smith burning good secondaries consistently, Flacco may only have to complete two long ones this time, as the Ravens should dominate the day.
What’s it all mean in the scheme of things?
The Raven's pummeled Brady at Gillette Stadium two years ago, as Ray Rice ran 81 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play to set the tone for the day. Look for Flacco to pop a long one to Torrey Smith quickly, as the Ravens settle to Rice, and eat Brady alive on defense.
Postseason Prediction (regardless of where the game is played)
Ravens 34, Patriots 17
If not having a viable defense and decent ground game is playoff suicide, then nagging injuries to ankles and hamstrings is playing Russian roulette in the postseason.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has different decisions to make than does Bill Belichick, but his decisions aren’t any less serious when it comes to his team.
Tomlin is treading on very tricky ground.
While Belichick's decisions are all personnel-based, in terms of trying to figure who can play a little bit of defense, Tomlin must decide between winning a division, and a first round bye, or rest, and possibly better health heading into the playoffs.
The Steelers, who can clinch a postseason berth with a win in San Francisco on Monday night, could be without the middle of their offense.
Star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey each have high ankle sprains, and both could miss the Monday night tilt with John Harbaugh's brother’s team.
If there is one positive about the injury to Roethlisberger, it’s that Tomlin even has a choice on whether to start or sit Big Ben.
We still could be if Tomlin decides to play him, and he injuries the ankle further, ala Sam Bradford. No one, other than those within the four walls of the Steelers' facility, really knows the extent of the injury, or how long this will take to heal.
I'm not a doctor, didn’t play one on TV and I don't need to stay at a Holiday Inn Express to tell you that playing through, or practicing on, a high ankle sprain isn't the best treatment for a quick recovery, especially in the bone-chilling damp cold of Pittsburgh.
Aside from Ben's and Maurkices ankles, defensive end Evander "Ziggy" Hood injured his groin, and all-world safety Troy Polamalu hurt his hamstring during the Browns game. Sounds like some big decisions lie ahead for head coach Mike Tomlin.
Both Baltimore and Pittsburgh are tied atop the AFC North with 10 wins, and even though Baltimore owns the tiebreaker as a result of beating Pittsburgh twice this season, the teams have to finish tied with the same record after 16 games for that to even matter.
The Steelers cannot let off the gas; one slip by Baltimore, who still has road games this Sunday night in San Diego and New Year’s Day in Cincinnati, and the division title could return to the Steel city once again.
Not to mention Pittsburgh could find themselves watching the Ravens play their eighth road playoff game in four seasons with a first-round bye on Wild Card weekend.
However, if Tomlin gambles and the Ravens do not slip, Roethlisberger gets no rest and may not even finish the year with the severity of the injury. Even if the Steelers can claim the division, how effective will they be with a beat-up Big Ben that didn’t get to rest? Worse yet, what if they lose the division, and their QB?
The Steelers are no longer the power running football team from the days of Bam Morris, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.
They can still pound the rock when they need to, but make no mistake, this is an offense that relies on the playmaking ability and arm of Roethlisberger. Without him, or with him at anything less than say 75 percent, would be disastrous for Pittsburgh should they have to face the Ravens for a third time this season.
In two games with a relatively healthy Roethlisberger this season, the Ravens beat up and had their way with the Pittsburgh offense.
Sure, the Steelers put up a good fight back in Week 9, but really folks, the Ravens defense was chasing Big Ben around like he stole Christmas presents from an orphanage during both games.
In the first game, they sacked him four times and added one more in November. Roethlisberger was personally accountable for turning the ball over seven times, as No. 7 coughed up three fumbles and threw four interceptions.
It would surprise exactly no one if Baltimore and Pittsburgh met for a third time this season sometime in January. In fact, most expect it to happen. This would be the third time in four years that the AFC North rivals needed another contest to determine the conference’s best team.
in that span, Baltimore lost both times in Pittsburgh. In January of 2009, the Ravens lost in the AFC Championship game, as Troy Polamalu picked off Joe Flacco late in the game and returned the INT for a TD as Baltimore was trying to drive for the game-winning field goal.
Last season the Ravens self-destructed after leading 21-7 at halftime. The Steelers, as they always seem to do, rallied and defeated the Ravens with a late TD to win 31-24. After beating the New York Jets the following week, the Steelers advanced to their second Super Bowl in three years.
Why Pittsburgh could beat the Ravens:
The only way the Steelers beat the Ravens in the playoffs this season is if the game is in the Steel City, and I’m not sure they do it there either.
The Steelers' best chance to beat Baltimore is to do what they always do when they beat the Ravens: keep the game close and capitalize on a Baltimore mistake, most notably a Flacco turnover at the end of the game.
Baltimore’s fourth-year signal caller could make a sizable name for himself by beating the Ravens arch rivals for a third time this season. However, if he thought he was criticized at times this season, he has not seen anything yet if he plays poorly during a loss to Pittsburgh again in January.
Instead of signing the contract extension he whined about not receiving last offseason, Flacco may as well change his number to seven and his name to Boller if he plays poorly in a loss to Pittsburgh this postseason.
Why they won’t
This is the Ravens' year; they have caught all of the breaks and stayed relatively healthy throughout the season (Knock on wood).
When you talk about the Steelers and Ravens, the conversation starts first and foremost with defense. Even if you talk about the offenses, you’re talking about how much success they must have versus the other defenses, which ultimately leads the conversation back to the defense.
Since the 2000 season the Ravens and Steelers are rankled one and two in most defensive categories that matter. The Ravens are ranked first in points allowed per game with 16.9, while the black and gold are second at 17.1.
Baltimore has allowed 99 touchdowns, while the Steelers 101—again, first and second. Total net yards allowed, Pittsburgh is first, while the Ravens are second. Rushing yards allowed, Steelers are No. 1, Ravens are No. 2. You get the point!
This season, the Steelers (No. 2) are ranked ahead of the Ravens (No. 3) in terms of total defense, but that doesn’t mean they have the better defense—they don’t, and it’s not really close in terms of the intangibles.
I like to point out and remind fans that the 2000 Ravens did not finish the year with the No. 1 overall defense. That honor went to the Tennessee Titans, who watched the Ravens use many of these same intangibles they currently possess to beat up, and beat down Kerry Collins and the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
Baltimore is doing the things that make for a great postseason much better than Pittsburgh this season.
For starters, the Ravens are the best in the NFL at getting off the field on third down. Baltimore has held the opposition under 30 percent on third-down conversions. The Steelers are 22nd.
In just his first season as Ravens defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano has dialed up the blitz early and often this season. As a result, Pagano’s aggressive defense has 15 more sacks than his Hall-of-Fame counterpart, Dick LeBeau's defense in Pittsburgh.
This also includes a franchise-record-tying nine QB takedowns on Thanksgiving night vs. the San Francisco 49ers. Aggressive defenses produce more than sacks. The Ravens also have secured 10 more turnovers than Pittsburgh, and this includes an NFL-best 19 forced fumbles.
The Ravens have scored 86 points after turnovers (fifth best in NFL), are first or second in either the conference or the league in six different categories and are third in three more.
Baltimore is the only team in the league that has not allowed an opponent to score on the opening drive this season. In fact, the Ravens defense has gone 21 consecutive games without allowing an opening score. That ranks as the longest streak over the past 20 NFL seasons.
So if its defense you think will make the difference in a playoff game between these two, I’m pretty confident the Ravens are the team with the better unit this year.
Yes, they are both great but the Ravens seem to do all of the little things that at present the Steelers are not. Last week, CBS color guy Steve Tasker said the Ravens' big flaw on their defense was their periodic communication breakdowns in their secondary.
The Ravens offense has been quite reliable since offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has turned to running back Ray Rice with much more consistency.
Playing at home will be critical to Joe Flacco. Joe Cool is exactly that at M&T Bank Stadium during his career' Flacco owns 26 career wins at home, good for the most among NFL starting quarterbacks since 2008, and is 26-5 all time at the big ATM.
Flacco is starting to have much more success versus the Steelers secondary.
He threw for 300 yards during the come-from-behind November win in which he took the team 92 yards in just over two minutes to win the game. Entering Week 15, the Ravens are sixth in point differential with a plus-118.
Ray Rice is the NFL’s leading multi-purpose back with 1,622 yards from scrimmage, and Joe Flacco proved he can beat the Steelers and Roethlisberger with November’s win, and even last October's win in Pittsburgh.
What it all means in the scheme of things:
No worries here, and let’s be honest Ravens fans, this team was specifically built to beat the Steelers.
The team released of Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Kelly Gregg and half of the backfield, all in part to become younger and faster than Pittsburgh.
It’s no surprise that the Ravens struggle vs. the 4-3 defense as opposed to a 3-4' the Steelers don’t put four linemen down, with just three linebackers, if you catch my drift.
The Baltimore Ravens are starting to peak at the right time, and Roethlisberger’s injury only stands to determine the point differential in the game. Obviously with Big Ben under center, the game will be much closer than without him.
If Roethlisberger couldn’t get away from T-Sizzle with two healthy ankles, how in the hell is he going to elude the AFC’s sack leader with just one?
The answer is, he’s not, and the Steelers, who are aging just a little bit faster in the crucial areas than the Ravens, won’t have the January juice necessary this year. Even if Ben had two healthy ankles, the Ravens would beat him again.
But he doesn’t, so look for a potential playoff matchup to closely resemble the 35-7 Week 1 beat down, especially if Baltimore is home and rested from a bye week.
Ravens 38, Steelers 14 (In Baltimore)
Ravens 27, Steelers 17 (In Pittsburgh)
Last week the Houston Texans clinched the franchise’s first-ever playoff berth and division title with a dramatic come-from-behind win over the Bengals in Cincinnati.
As a first-time playoff participant, and like the Ravens of 2000, the Texans are a very scary team.
Unlike New England, the Texans possess a good defense, which is No. 1 in the NFL in terms of yardage, and a great rushing attack with last year’s NFL rushing leader Arian Foster.
His backup Ben Tate is also pretty good; the two have combined for almost 1,800 yards on the ground this season, most as a duo in the league this year.
It’s even scarier to think how good the Texans could be if they had some of their best players in uniform.
Houston started the season, as they have in recent seasons, with high but guarded expectations. The Texans looked to have all of the pieces in place to do battle with the Colts for the SFGC South.
It even appeared as if the Texans, who have been considered unlucky in the past, caught a break when Peyton Manning went down for the season after surgery to repair his neck did not heal in time for the season to start.
That luck, or break, or whatever you call Manning’s unfortunate situation for Houston, didn't last long. The injury bug found its way into the Texans' locker room in a big way.
Starting in Week 4, the Texans have seen a starter or key contributor go down with injury in nine of their last 10 games. It all started when WR Andre Johnson went down with a hamstring injury that has caused him to miss six games. OLB Mario Williams sustained a pectoral tear against Oakland in Week 5 that landed him on the Reserve/Injured List.
The following week the Lisfranc fracture began to rear its ugly head, as special teams ace SS Dominique Barber joined Williams on IR with the dreaded foot injury against Baltimore.
In Week 7, starting FS Danieal Manning broke his fibula while making an interception at Tennessee, putting him out of action for three games.
The injury bug got bigger as the weeks wore on, and in Week 8 against Jacksonville, top reserve ILB Darryl Sharpton suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury, landing him on IR.
Houston also has lost its first- and second-string quarterbacks to season-ending injuries. QB Matt Schaub also suffered a foot injury believed to be Lisfranc at Tampa Bay in Week 10.
Former USC and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart got the call in Week 12 at Jacksonville and left the game with a season-ending collarbone injury in the second quarter.
In Week 13, P Brett Hartmann was lost for the season with an ACL injury, and Last week, RG Mike Brisiel played through a lower-leg injury that required surgery. Head coach Gary Kubiak expects Brisiel to miss 3-4 weeks with the injury.
With all of these injuries surely everyone would understand if the Texans' season derailed, but when the Atlanta Falcons came to town, the Houston defense, ranked first in the league, turned in a great performance.
Behind Foster's 152 all-purpose yards, Houston controlled the clock and the Falcons' high-powered offense to win the game 17-10.
Last week in Cincinnati, the Texans trailed 16-3 at halftime before Yates threw two touchdown passes, the last one capping a 13-play, 80-yard drive with two seconds remaining in the game.
Why they could beat the Ravens:
Houston has the prototypical playoff formula for success.
Rookie QB T.J. Yates’ two game-winning drives in back-to-back weeks is a rare feat for a rookie QB in the NFL. .According to ESPN.com via the Elias Sports Bureau, Inc., It’s been 43 years since it’s been done.
“Yates is the first quarterback to lead winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in each of his first two starts since Jon Kitna did it for the Seahawks in 1997 and 1998. The last rookie quarterback to do so was Virgil Carter of the Bears in 1968.
Yates and Lions QB Matthew Stafford are the only rookies in the last 10 years to throw game-winning touchdown passes in the last 30 seconds of the fourth quarter.
Stafford did so in a 38-37 win against Cleveland in 2009. In his first career start against Atlanta in Week 13, Yates led a 19-play, 85-yard game-winning touchdown drive that provided the difference in a 17-10 win.
Ravens fans will not sell Yates short, as they know how effective a rookie QB can be in the postseason when handled properly from the sidelines. Joe Flacco was under center in 2008, and led the Ravens to the AFC Championship game. Yates seems to have that “it,” and don’t be surprised to see he and Flacco in this year’s installment for the conference title.
Running Back Arian Foster plays a lot like Ray Rice and is second in the NFL in scrimmage yards per game with 136.4. He has shown this year why he is one of the game’s most complete backs.
He is the only running back in the NFL to have two 100-yard receiving games, and has five 100-yard rushing performances, including 155 yards against Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense and 111 yards against Atlanta’s third-ranked run defense.
The Texans like to run the ball under head coach Gary Kubiak; the Texans have made running the ball effectively a priority, and that philosophy has been proven in the team’s win-loss record since 2006.
When Houston has run the ball 30 or more times over the last six seasons, the team is 32-3 (.914 winning pct.). By contrast, Houston is 3-30 when rushing fewer than 25 times. The Texans were 4-1 in 2010 and are 9-0 in 2011 when rushing 30 or more times.
Houston can score points away from Reliant Stadium. The Texans have the AFC’s best road offense and NFL’s second-best road offense since 2008, averaging 387.9 yards in their 31 road games in that time. Houston led the NFL in road offense in 2009, averaging 407.4 yards per game, and was third in 2010 with 393.9 yards per game on the road.
Houston was also third in road offense in 2008 with 367.3 yards per game. The Texans rank ninth in road offense production in 2011, averaging 382.3 yards per game in seven road games. Carolina is second in 2011, averaging 426.5 yards of offense on the road.
The Texans’ top-ranked defense is giving up 274.9 yards per game and has been especially tough at home this season, holding opponents to 13.0 points and 248.8 yards per game at Reliant Stadium.
The defense is led ILB Brian Cushing (86 tackles), OLB Connor Barwin (9.5 sacks) and CB Johnathan Joseph (15 passes defensed, four interceptions).
Why they won’t:
The Texans are good, but they aren’t great.
Let’s also be honest, and I’m not taking anything away from Houston, but their stats are a bit inflated with the division they play in. Facing the 0-13 Colts, 4-10 Jaguars and 7-6 Titans would be a plus for a lot of teams in the league.
The Colts (31) and Jaguars (32) are owners of the two worst offenses in football, which has helped with Houston’s No. 1 defensive ranking.
Back in Week 6, the Ravens seemed to wear down the Texans and imposed their will on Houston. Baltimore scored the final 16 points and won 29-14. Ray Rice rushed for 101 yards but Foster and Tate combined for just 90.
Like I wrote in the Steelers slide, the Texans may have a better defense in terms of yardage, but they simply do not do all of the things the Ravens do, and they don’t have the talent at every level of the defense like Baltimore does. They do those little things better than Pittsburgh, but not the Ravens.
The Ravens are tough on rookie and second-year QBs. It is hard to imagine that T.J. Yates would have much success against the aggressive Baltimore defense, especially at M&T Bank Stadium.
Recent common opponent:
Cincinnati Bengals: The Texans and Ravens both beat Cincy late. The Ravens held on late in the fourth as the Bengals were driving to tie the game, but failed, and turned the ball over on downs. The Texans pulled it out with just two seconds left in the game.
The Ravens gave up almost 500 yards of total offense (483), but forced rookie QB Andy Dalton into three interceptions. The Texans defense held the Bengals to just 285 yards.
The Texans are the only team amongst the three that I believe could beat the Ravens in the postseason, but they won’t—they simply do not have enough experience where it matters.
The Ravens and Texans should face off in the AFC Championship game if Yates doesn’t fall apart.
Based on the Texans' record of running the ball 30 or more times a game, it’s a good bet Baltimore will see a good dose of Foster and Tate, and that’s OK with them as they are second in the NFL in run defense this season, allowing just under 86 yards per game.
Ravens 27, Texans 17