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NFL Preview - Baltimore (5-1) at Houston (5-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Ray Lewis has been to Baltimore's defense what satire has been to the fictional town of South Park. The Ravens, though, will have to continue their march towards another championship without their dynamic linebacker for most, if not all, of the remainder of the season.
That chore isn't an easy one for the AFC North leaders this Sunday as they visit a fellow 5-1 club in the Houston Texans.
Baltimore picked up a fourth straight victory last weekend by hanging on to beat the Dallas Cowboys, 31-29, but it came at a cost. Lewis missed the end of the contest with an triceps injury that was diagnosed as a complete tear. Lewis is figured to be done for the season, but the club did leave a window open for a possible return by placing the former defensive MVP on injured reserve with a designation to return.
Cornerback Lardarius Webb wasn't as lucky as he was placed on IR due to a torn ACL in his left knee.
That is a blow to a defense that saw Cowboys' wide receiver Dez Bryant drop a potential game-tying two-point conversion pass in Sunday's win with 32 seconds to play and allowed a franchise-worst 227 yards on the ground.
Baltimore won its 14th game in a row at home, but has uncharacteristically allowed over 200 yards rushing in back-to-back games.
The Raven's offense did their best to compensate, with running back Ray Rice rushing for a pair of touchdowns and Jacoby Jones, a former Texan, matching an NFL record with a 108-yard kickoff return for a score.
"They threw some haymakers at us, but we hung in there long enough," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. "And to tie the NFL record for a kickoff return, in what was the difference in the game, was pretty special."
Wins are what is important and only the Texans have as many this season in the AFC than the Ravens.
Still, Harbaugh isn't putting Baltimore's entire season on the line in this game.
"I would characterize (the game) that we're going to go play a game. It's going to count at the end, and it's going to matter on our record and it's going to matter on their record when it all comes down at the end," noted Harbaugh. "All those kind of characterizations, they just don't mean that much to us. What difference does it make? You add them up as you go."
The Ravens are 5-1 for the second time in club history, also doing so during their Super Bowl season in 2000, and hope their history with the young Texans franchise helps them better that mark.
Baltimore has never lost to Houston, winning all five regular-season meetings while also ending Houston's first ever playoff appearance with a 20-13 victory in the AFC Divisional Round back on Jan. 15.
Houston quarterback Matt Schaub did not play in that game due to an injury and ran his personal win streak to nine in a row with a victory over the New York Jets on Oct. 8, moving the Texans to 5-0.
However, Houston is coming off its first loss of 2012 and it was a bad one, a 42-24 home loss to Green Bay in which Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers connected on six touchdown passes.
It marked the first time that the Texans lost a game that Schaub had started since Week 6 of last year to these very same Ravens.
Star Houston running back Arian Foster scored twice but was held to 29 yards on 17 carries, while the 42 points allowed were the most by a Houston team since a 43-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts back in Week 2 of the 2006 campaign.
It also came in Houston's first game since losing linebacker Brian Cushing to a season-ending knee injury.
"They came in here and got after us pretty good in all three phases," said Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. "It's a tough league. There are no excuses here. We got beat across the board."
Houston allowed season highs in total yards (426) and passing yards (328) to Green Bay.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
While the Texans didn't like how their defense looked with Cushing, the Ravens will somehow hope for an improvement despite the loss of Lewis and Webb.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Wednesday and practiced for the first time since an injury to his Achilles tendon this past offseason, but figures to be a longshot to play this weekend.
Instead, Harbaugh will turn to the likes of Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Albert McClellen to help replace Lewis, who leads the Ravens with 57 tackles to go with a sack.
Second-year corner Jimmy Smith is expected to replace Webb in the starting lineup, with Corey Graham likely to move into a nickel role.
One thing working in Baltimore's favor is that the club did win all four games that Lewis missed last year due to injury.
"I feel great about our guys' chances to fill in. That's something that we've been able to do in the past. That's what you have to be able to do. Obviously, that's going to define what we are able to accomplish this year," said Harbaugh.
Kubiak doesn't expect the Ravens defense to change a whole lot without Lewis.
"They've been successful defensively for numerous years," he said. "Ever since I've been around so I'm sure they're planning on staying the same way. It's about their scheme. It just challenges their scheme."
Kubiak will try to challenge it with Foster, who is still second in the NFL with 561 rushing yards despite last weekend's struggles. His seven rushing touchdowns are also tops in the NFL.
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt leads the NFL with 9.5 sacks after notching two against the Packers. His string of six straight regular-season games with a sack is tied with Mario Williams (Nov. 18-Dec. 23, 2007) for the longest in club history and he is on the verge of becoming just the third Texan to reach 10 or more sacks in a season.
Watt may butt heads a few times with Ravens fullback Vonta Leach, a former Texan who once helped Foster lead the league in rushing.
"(Houston's) a team that they've been building for years and years to come," said Leach. "You have Antonio Smith, you have J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin, and also you have Brooks Reed on the other side. They get after the quarterback real good -- create a lot of mismatches."
One indirect matchup will be between wide receivers Andre Johnson of Houston and Baltimore's Anquan Boldin.
The two were both selected in the 2003 draft -- Boldin by the Arizona Cardinals -- and are among the league leaders in receptions and catches since their rookie season.
Boldin is third with 735 receptions, four more than Johnson, and fourth with 9,673 yards.
Johnson, meanwhile, became the sixth fastest receiver ever to reach 10,000 receiving yards, passing the mark last Sunday in his 128th career game. His career total stands 10,014.
Houston could be without one of its top weapons to shut down Boldin as corner Johnathan Joseph is battling a sore groin that held him out of practice on Wednesday.
Houston knows what it is like to lose a star linebacker and a bad situation only gets worse for Baltimore without Lewis.
Foster has been limited to just 149 yards and no touchdowns in two previous regular-season meetings with the Ravens, but no Lewis should give the back more room to run. Secondary receivers like Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels and James Casey could also see a spike in production due to the loss of Webb.
But it is Foster who is likely to have the biggest impact.
"We know teams are going to come in now and try to run," noted Ravens safety Ed Reed. "We're conscious of that. We have to make the corrections. But, it's like I told the guys on the sidelines, stats don't win the game. There's only one stat that wins the game for you and that's points."
The Ravens have their own game-changing back in Rice, but even he may not be able to keep pace with the Texans offense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 27, Ravens 23
10/18 12:43:10 ET