Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens Expert Pick
HOUSTON TEXANS AT BALTIMORE RAVENS EXPERT PICK – Lamar Jackson is so close. He’s a win away from the deepest playoff run of his career, and in prime position to fulfill the Super Bowl promise he made six years ago on the stage of the 2018 NFL draft.
The missing piece to his otherwise sure-fire Hall of Fame resume is playoff success. His postseason woes are well documented, and a loss on Saturday would be a crippling blow to an organization that’s had an inexplicable dropoff come January. It’s no secret the pressure’s on Jackson. Now, can he handle it?
Nobody makes football look easier than Lamar Jackson, except for CJ Stroud.
The rookie quarterback has had a stellar season, and he’s far from finished. Over the past month, the Texans have roared from feel-good upstarts into true contenders.
They dismantled the Browns in the wild card round, not-so-courteously checking Joe Flacco into the retirement home. Given a clean pocket, Stroud does not miss. He’s such a smooth thrower with elite ball placement, always hitting his receivers in stride allowing them to create more yards after the catch.
After the Texans and Ravens met in Week 1, I wrote that “Stroud looked like the savvy vet while Lamar looked like the impatient rookie.” And while Lamar certainly picked up his game (to MVP levels), Stroud has been a steady source of dominant QB play. A lot has changed since that September 10th matchup, but there may still be some relevant takeaways.
In that Week 1 matchup, the Texans defense was young and hungry. And they’ve only gotten better. They fly around and play with serious intensity. In that game, the Ravens O-line had their hands full facing Jonathan Greenard and company, allowing their fourth-highest pressure percentage of the season (29 percent).
The unit has improved throughout the season allowing only a 7.7 percent pressure rate against the 49ers’ vaunted front and an 8 percent rate against the Dolphins. Lamar started the season with fumbling issues and has five fumbles in four career playoff games, so another strong outing from the big boys up would go a long way toward a clean game.
In Houston’s secondary, Derek Stingley has broken out as one of the game’s best corners. He’s a ballhawk with five interceptions on the year, and last week the Texans showed they’re willing to move him around to give offenses fits.
As good as Stingley has been, the Texans’ defense has been susceptible in the passing game, ranking 27th in yards per play allowed so Baltimore would be wise to take advantage through the air.
The 22-degree kickoff time will, presumably favor the Ravens, who, unlike the Texans, do not play in a dome.
CJ Stroud played in his share of cold games back at Ohio State, but such frigid conditions should present some challenges for Houston’s high-flying attack. Houston ranks 29th in yards per rush and 25th in rush yards per game. Contrast that with Baltimore’s first-ranked rushing offense, and it seems the Ravens are more suited for an ice bowl.
Likely to Continue
Mark Andrews isn’t active in this one, but even the possibility of his playing would have seemed far-fetched back in November. By all accounts, it seemed the tight end would miss the rest of the season after suffering an ankle injury in Week 11.
But Andrews returned to the practice field this week, and you’ve got to think he’ll be ready to go for the championship game should Baltimore advance. Truthfully, I’m a little relieved Andrews isn’t playing.
The Ravens have a good thing going with Isaiah Likely and forcing a potentially banged-up Andrews into the lineup could disrupt the offense’s flow. Once Andrews is fully right, he’ll assume his position at the top of the depth chart, but with Likely’s recent play, there’s no need to rush him back.
The pressure is immense. Four years ago, Baltimore sat where they do now — and squandered it. With a win, the Ravens can prove that 2019 was not the peak of the Lamar era.
They can exorcize their ghosts, prove they can perform under the bright lights, and host the AFC Championship for the first time in franchise history. The roster is chock-full of All-Pro and Pro-Bowl talent, the coordinators are strengths rather than weaknesses, and they have an MVP QB at the helm. A loss cannot be excused. Lamar will not let destiny slip through his fingers this time.