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NFL Preview - Baltimore (8-4) at Houston (5-7)



By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - With a division title still within reach and only a handful of games remaining in the regular season, the Baltimore Ravens will need to bounce back quickly from a painful loss in their last game. The Houston Texans have had a few extra days to cope with a tough and damaging defeat of their own from the previous week.

The Ravens begin their healing process with Monday's visit to Reliant Stadium, where the still-contending club takes on a Texans team that's had trouble getting out of tailspin that's being going on for more than a month.

Baltimore entered last week's play in control of the AFC North race and appeared poised to distance itself from its chief competition for the division crown, the Pittsburgh Steelers, when the two bitter rivals squared off in Week 13. The Ravens were ahead for the majority of that game and held a four-point advantage with under 3 1/2 minutes to play, but a game-changing turnover led to late touchdown that gave the Steelers an uplifting 13-10 win and sole possession of first place.

The momentum-shifting moment occurred when blitzing Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu sacked Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and forced a fumble that the Steelers recovered on the Baltimore nine-yard line. Less than a minute later, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger connected with running back Isaac Redman for the go-ahead points.

The Ravens now trail the Steelers by 1 1/2 games in the standings with just four to play in the regular season, and have one more loss within the division than their hated foes. Pittsburgh increased its lead with a 23-7 win over hapless Cincinnati on Sunday.

Baltimore is still in good position in regards to making the playoffs, presently owning a 1 1/2-game lead on a three-team pack consisting of San Diego, Indianapolis and Miami for the AFC's second Wild Card spot.

The same can't be said about the Texans. A midseason downturn that's produced five losses in a six-game span has Houston in a familiar position entering the stretch run -- on the outside looking in of the postseason picture.

The Texans, who have never advanced to the playoffs in their nine-year existence, are now 2 1/2 games behind surging Jacksonville for the AFC South's top spot after being dealt a 34-24 Thursday night defeat at Philadelphia in Week 13.

Houston put forth a determined third-quarter rally to overcome a 10-point halftime deficit in that contest, scoring 14 unanswered points to forge ahead, but its troublesome defense surrendered two touchdowns in the final 15 minutes that sealed the team's fate.

The Texans have now allowed 29 points or more in each of the five losses during their current swoon and have held an opponent under 24 points only once this entire season.

That poor track record may bode well for a Baltimore offense that's seeking to break out of a mild recent slump. The Ravens mustered just 269 total yards against the Steelers, one week after gaining a lackluster 92 rushing yards in a 17-10 win over Tampa Bay.

SERIES HISTORY

The Ravens have won each of the three previous meetings between the teams, with two of those victories taking place in Houston. Baltimore handed the Texans a 23-19 setback at Reliant Stadium in 2002 and came away with a 41-13 road rout during the 2008 season. That game was initially scheduled to be played in Week 2, but was pushed back into November due to the arrival of Hurricane Ike.

Baltimore, which also posted a 16-15 home win over the Texans in 2005, has lost a game in Houston before, however, falling by a 29-13 count to the Oilers at the Astrodome in 1996.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh won his only career encounter with the Texans, while Houston's Gary Kubiak is 0-1 all-time against both Harbaugh and Baltimore.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

Baltimore had established itself as a powerful running team during Harbaugh's first two seasons at the helm, placing in the NFL's top five in rushing yards in both those years, but hasn't been able to achieve the same success in that area in 2010. The Ravens are averaging only 3.6 yards per carry thus far, the second-lowest figure in the league, and managed a paltry 43 yards on the ground against Pittsburgh's formidable defense last week. Baltimore did not have fullback Le'Ron McClain (64 rushing yards, 15 receptions), the lead blocker for top running back Ray Rice (844 rushing yards, 3 TD, 49 receptions), available for that game due to a sprained ankle, but he's on track to return for Monday's contest. Rice has rushed for over 100 yards just once this year after eclipsing that mark five times during a breakthrough 2009 campaign, but the third-year pro has remained an impact receiver in an offense that has plenty of proven pass-catchers for Flacco (2988 passing yards, 19 TD, 8 INT). Offseason pickup Anquan Boldin (56 receptions, 770 yards, 7 TD) has lived up to expectations as the primary target and comes in off a 118-yard, one-touchdown display on five catches against the Steelers, while 36-year-old Derrick Mason (47 receptions, 4 TD) has continued to be a consistent performer in his 14th NFL season. Flacco likely won't have trusty tight end Todd Heap (37 receptions, 5 TD) at his disposal after injuring a hamstring in the Pittsburgh game, which should present an opportunity for promising rookie Ed Dickson (8 receptions) and may mean an increased role for third receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh (21 receptions, 2 TD) as well.

Flacco should have a chance to atone for a shaky showing last week with an inviting matchup against Houston's porous pass defense. The Texans have permitted an NFL-worst average of 287.4 yards per game through the air as well as 27 passing touchdowns, which also sits at the bottom of the league rankings. A young secondary in which cornerbacks Glover Quin (63 tackles, 3 INT, 12 PD) and Kareem Jackson (54 tackles, 2 INT, 9 PD) have undergone a baptism by fire hasn't gotten a whole lot of support from a pass rush that's generated only 19 sacks on the year and lacks a reliable complement to standout end Mario Williams (28 tackles, 8.5 sacks), who's still been a force despite constantly drawing double teams. The Texans have been solid against the run in spite of a crippling season-ending injury to Pro Bowl middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans in mid-October, rating 10th overall in that category (101.4 ypg) and limiting Tennessee to a meager 24 rushing yards in a shutout win two weeks back. Houston does sport the NFL's 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year in strongside starter Brian Cushing (53 tackles), while strong safety and leading stopper Bernard Pollard (90 tackles, 1 sack) adds a hard-hitting presence from his position.

WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL

Houston's obvious strong suit comes from this side of the ball, as an offense that's seventh in the NFL in both total yards (373.0 ypg) and rushing (130.5 ypg) contains a pair of difference-makers in running back Arian Foster (1230 rushing yards, 50 receptions, 15 total TD) and wide receiver Andre Johnson (71 receptions, 1018 yards, 5 TD). Foster comes in as the league's leading ground- gainer and is averaging a robust 5.0 yards per attempt in a terrific sophomore year, while his 15 touchdowns are already a franchise best for a single season. A lingering ankle injury has yet to slow down Johnson, as evidenced by the 149 receiving yards on six catches he put up against the Eagles in Week 13, and the physically-imposing wideout serves as the clear-cut go-to guy for quarterback Matt Schaub (3089 passing yards, 17 TD, 8 INT). The Texans have had some trouble defining a steady secondary option in the passing game, with Foster ranking second on the team in catches and receiving yards (479), but this week's anticipated return of sure-handed tight end Owen Daniels (16 receptions) from a five-game absence due to a hamstring strain could provide a safe outlet for the accurate Schaub, who's completing passes at a 64 percent rate and put up 337 yards and two scores in the Philadelphia loss.

Foster could find the yards a little tougher to come in this week's test against a nasty Baltimore defense that stands sixth in the NFL versus the run (97.8 ypg) and yielded a scant 54 rushing yards to the Steelers last Sunday. As always, the charge has been headed up by iconic inside linebacker Ray Lewis (108 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), who's on his way towards another Pro Bowl season that's been aided by the stout presence up front from mammoth interior lineman Haloti Ngata (54 tackles, 5.5 sacks). Those two help form an excellent front seven that fields another outstanding playmaker in outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (55 tackles, 9 sacks), the team's best pass rusher who was a one-man wrecking crew against Pittsburgh, compiling 1 1/2 sacks and five quarterback pressures in a stellar individual effort. One more star exists in the secondary, where six-time All-Pro free safety Ed Reed (18 tackles, 4 INT, 9 PD) patrols a backfield that's helped the Ravens rank sixth overall in pass efficiency defense. Baltimore's stop unit has been playing its best ball over the season's second half, having held four of its last five opponents to 13 or fewer points.

FANTASY FOCUS

The top two fantasy selections in this game reside on the Texans' side, as Foster and Johnson are both premier contributors and lineup fixtures that should remain productive even with a challenging assignment this week. Schaub's numbers are more in line with a borderline starter at the quarterback position, meaning owners should weigh all their options before making a decision, but don't hesitate to insert Flacco in the mix against a Houston defense that's been an absolute sieve all year. Boldin and Mason get a thumbs-up for the same reasons, and Heap's likely unavailability makes both an even more attractive choice. Rice hasn't had the same impact as his prolific 2009 season, but the Baltimore back is still more than worthy of a starter's spot. The Ravens' defense is only a so-so play this week with the Texans' high-scoring capabilities, but Houston's should never be considered even in a last-resort situation. Feel free to use Texans kicker Neil Rackers, though, as he's 19- for-21 on field goal attempts for the year.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Baltimore has been the more consistent and well-rounded of these two combatants, and the Ravens' sense of urgency following a stinging loss combined with the Texans' second-half struggles are a couple of other good reasons to side with the visitors here. Defense will be the difference in this game, and there's little debate over which team has the better one. Houston won't be able to adequately handle the Ravens' collection of talent at the skill positions, while a Baltimore stop unit that's been competing at a very high level of late will pose a stern challenge to the Texans' offensive stars.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 23, Texans 17

12/13 13:09:59 ET

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